Everyone in the food industry is aware of some of the big multiples paid for early stage branded food companies over the last few years. Exit valuations as high as 6- or 7-time sales have been seen. This has caused a large number of entrepreneurs and funders to create companies searching for these exit valuations. I have noticed some recent developments that will make these high-priced exits more and more difficult. They are as follows:
- Big food companies struggle when managing a portfolio of mid-size specialty brands rather than billion dollar plus brands. Even when a specialty and better for you company grows significantly, it often will not attain the volumes required by big food company infrastructures to efficiently manage.
- The traditional product development no longer works. Large food companies used to bring a new product to market by developing a new product internally over a number of years with millions of dollars invested in market research and product testing. This strategy does not work in the high change, short product life cycles in today’s market.
- It isn’t paying off. To compete in this new marketplace, large food companies began acquiring early stage growth companies for very high valuations putting most of their financial and organizational resources behind a couple of big bets. This strategy has actually paid off in only a few instances and misses are very expensive.
- Today, the more sophisticated large food enterprises are developing the same fast fail methods that the start ups have been using for years. They work closely with an increasing array of sophisticated co-packers that can both develop and scale new products rapidly. A company can often bring 10 to 15 new items to market in this way for the same cost and far faster, without having to buy an early stage company.
- The ones that do not gain traction, they kill early. The ones that look successful they rapidly expand with the co-packer. They do not want to build their own production capacity as a successful new food item generates many copiers in a very short period of time, making an acceptable return on new production capacity problematic.
You may still see some very high valuations for companies like the Impossible Burger. But these will increasingly be companies that develop entire new markets with very heavy R&D and start up production costs often in the 9 figures before the first dollar of revenue. Think lab-grown meat as future new market segment for environmentally sound and clean label real meat. The development cost for this project may approach a billion dollars before reaching the market.
So, where does this leave a startup food company in today’s market?
Is your goal to significantly grow a start up food company over a short period of time? To never make money and hope for sufficient funding and a high value exit? I would caution against it.
Do you want to build a food company for the long haul with distinctive products in multiple channels, including both retail and food service? Is your goal to reach breakeven as quickly as possible while financing your growth with a mix of internally generated funds and traditional bank lending? Then I would say let’s get started.
In this environment, a traditional PE firm can develop a very profitable strategy around hitting 6-8 out of ten doubles rather than 1 out of 10 home runs. Family offices with their longer investment horizon and flexible financing structures should thrive. This would leave the search for the next unicorn with the increasingly heavy front-end investments to the true venture capital firms that are structured on big risk big reward strategies.
A final note. Whenever I would discuss future trends with my late father, Angelo, he often ended the conversation with the same phrase “It could be and then again….maybe not”. Always something to keep in mind when predicting the future.
New Food Strategies
Often a Founder of an early stage food company gets so focused on raising money they lose sight of what they need to do to efficiently manage the funds an investor is putting in the company. You have convinced an investor in the value of your product, management team, and marketing plan. Now you need to hit your growth objectives with the funds provided.
There are a few simple tools that will keep you on track towards increasing your company valuation before an exit or the next round of funding without running out of money. They include: Continue reading
Developing an effective Sales Strategy to grow your company from its early stage $1,000,000 annual sales level to $10-25,000,000 and beyond is not an easy task. As you grow you will greatly expand the number of competitors while simultaneously entering new markets and channels of distribution that often have conflicting requirements. You will also be building out a sales and marketing function within your own company as the requirements in this area quickly outgrow your ability to manage them. Continue reading
A member of a prominent family who has bought and sold many companies over the years once told me that there are only two times that you should sell a business. The first is when you are not really trying, and someone comes to you with an offer to good to refuse. The second Continue reading
What drives valuation in an early stage, branded food company?
What does an early stage investor look for in a growing food company when they attempt to put a value on a potential investment? Many food entrepreneurs think it is the rate of growth in sales that drives valuation. That is partially true but does not tell the whole story. I have found the following to be the key factors in valuing early stage high growth food companies.
Managing your supply chain as your food company grows from early stage to mid-size is both complicated and a great opportunity. As your volume increases you can reduce your product costs as much as 30%. Purchasing raw materials at higher volumes along with production economies of scale drive this reduction. However, if not managed well your supply can kill your business quickly. Running short on raw materials, quality issues in finished products, and uncontrolled costs from out of code product are some of the many issues that can cripple a growing early stage food company. These issues can come up whether you use a co-packer or make the product in-house When planning your growing supply chain, you should consider the following:
As a food company begins scaling the organization required to run it changes dramatically. The external factors driving this are many. The most important ones are:
- Selling to larger more complicated customers
- Distribution going from local to regional and national
- Greater regulatory scrutiny
- More partners and increased financial reporting requirements
- Multiple production locations
- Aggressive growth projections
So, you have built your new food or beverage company from a start-up to over $1,000,000 in annual sales, with good margins and strong same-store sales. You have investors looking to finance your growth to the next level. You feel you are over the hump and on your way to long-term success.
However, you have just entered the most complicated stage of building a food company. That is scaling from the start-up phase to a fully staffed and well organized small business. This phase in the build out of your organization has led to the stagnation or death of many companies. The following are the most critical areas of concern as you build a food company from very small to mid-size and a few of the major tasks in each area:
Running a frozen specialty co-packing operation for nearly 30 years has given me unique insight into what makes up a healthy partnership between Co-Packer and customer. At Little Lady Foods we introduced over 100 new product lines for customers such as Nestle, Kellogg’s, Newman’s Own, Walmart, and numerous early-stage companies. Continue reading