Donna Berry 2019CHICAGO — The Chicagoland Food and Beverage Network gathered Feb. 13, at Fifty Gazelles, a Chicago-based innovation company that specializes in fast-to-market commercialization of packaged goods. Attendees listened to a panel of three executives who previously worked for large companies and now are involved in fast-moving startups.

“We’re better together,” said Jeremy Anderson, founder of Fifty Gazelles, when explaining why the panel is willing to share their experiences and learnings with other startups in the food and beverage space.

One panelist, Michelle Lorge, vice president of marketing with Simple Mills, Chicago, joined the company in 2015 after spending 12 years with Kraft Foods in brand management and innovation. Simple Mills was founded in 2013 to provide an alternative to the baking mixes then on the market, most notably gluten-free varieties. Today, it is a leader in the category and continues to innovate in other gluten-free product categories.

“You have to rely on your gut a little more,” she said, when explaining the difference between working with a big company and a startup. “We basically hire our customers by asking them what they think. We need to get information anywhere we can to gain insights.

Michelle Lorge, vice president of marketing, Simple Mills

“You need to learn your market and adjust. Big companies rely on data too much. I needed to unlearn perfectionism.”

Brian Evangelista, vice president of marketing, Farmhouse Culture, which recently relocated to Chicago from Southern California, and a former executive with both Conagra Brands and Kitchfix, said the conversation starts at a very different place with startups.

“The approach from the top down is fundamentally different,” Mr. Evangelista said. “We move fast. You need to have partnerships with a few influential retailers and launch quickly with those anchor retailers.”

Mari Lee, who recently joined the Bryan, Texas-based Nutrabolt team as vice president of marketing, has past leadership roles at High Brew Coffee, KIND and glaceau, said, “just because the playbook works for one brand does not mean it will work for another. You need to listen, learn, modify, and adjust, adjust, adjust.”

A startup company’s team must be a group that eats, drinks and works late together. They must be respectful of all players.

“Treasure the team,” Ms. Lee said. “It’s all about the team. They will work hard for you.” 

Mr. Evangelista said, “A hungry, naturally curious team will succeed and never run out of meaningful work.”

Brian Evangelista, vice president of marketing, Farmhouse Culture

Most startups have little or no marketing dollars. The panel agreed that they must be used wisely and properly managed.

“We invested in influencers because we can better control our message,” Ms. Lorge said. “It was all done in house.”

Ms. Lee agreed word of mouth builds the brand.

“Employees work as brand ambassadors,” Ms. Lee said. “Train them. Have them bring product everywhere. It’s all about experiential marketing.”

Negative social media happens and it’s important to be able to control how it impacts the business.

“In the startup world, you have to stay rooted,” Ms. Lee said. “It is so easy to get off track because the climate is changing so quickly.”

Mr. Evangelista said, “Focus. Focus on selling.” 

Everyone needs to be on the same page. Sometimes you need to let the criticism go, Ms. Lorge said.

Networking, which is what Mr. Anderson explained at the beginning of the panel as “We’re better together,” is crucial to startups.

Mari Lee, vice president of marketing, Nutrabolt

“Networking is so important,” Mr. Evangelista said. “But you need to protect your network.”

Advice given included asking how many relationships you can maintain. Invest in and make sure you schedule time to network and maintain the relationships. 

“It’s so important,” Ms. Lorge said. “Make sure the networking is mutually beneficial. It’s all about relationships and partnerships.

“Working through others will help you reach more consumers.”