Building a natural products company is no easy task. Challenges like finding trusted service providers, scaling retail distribution and surpassing regulatory roadblocks prevent many from success.
Last week, New Hope Natural Media, producers of the Natural Products Expo, launched NEXT Accelerator, a membership-based resource platform designed to help natural products entrepreneurs grow their business. While New Hope is calling the platform an online accelerator, it bares little resemblance to traditional accelerator models like Y Combinator and 500 Startups, which offer cash and mentorship in exchange for equity.
NEXT’s platform features educational resources, a service provider database and online community. For $50 a month, entrepreneurs get unlimited access to hundreds of video interviews with industry experts, how-to guides and business tools. Video topics range from ‘The ‘unnatural’ list: 82 ingredients that will get you 66’d from Whole Foods to ‘How to craft your marketing message for conventional retail.’ And initial expert contributors include veteran natural products consultant, Bob Burke, as well founders from Back to the Roots, Honest Tea and Annie’s Homegrown.
Members also have access to a database of vetted service providers, which makes it easier to search for and evaluate providers, like contract manufacturers and packaging designers. Finally, entrepreneurs can connect with peers, investors, consultants, service providers and others through the platform’s discussion forum.
I spoke with New Hope’s senior director of content and insights, Carlotta Mast, to learn more about this program’s inspiration and goals. Our interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Food+Tech Connect: What was the inspiration for NEXT Accelerator?
Carlotta Mast: Natural Products Expo was the first industry expo in 1981. We have been working with startup companies in natural products for decades, including the big names like White Wave and Kashi. As the economy improves, we’ve been seeing a flood of new companies with amazing, innovative ideas. They all want to make positive change in the food system or cleaner, less toxic products etc. These early stage companies face a lot of challenges, like increasing retail distribution and regulatory issues. We realized that so many of these companies have the same questions and hurdles, from supply chain decisions to fundraising concerns. We felt that is was our opportunity and our responsibility to be doing more to help them succeed.
FTC: How do you differentiate yourself from others startup accelerator programs?
CM: NEXT Accelerator is is not your traditional accelerator. We offer an online portal available to anyone building a natural products startup, which contains expert answers videos, a service provider data base and a online community forum, where members can post their own questions and receive feedback. We felt it was important to create a solution that would be open to all natural product entrepreneurs. This is where we came up with the idea for this digital platform. This industry is home to a vibrant community of entrepreneurs. There is an amazing willingness to share and help the industry on the whole. We wanted to enable startups to tap into this 365 days a year through our online accelerator program.
FTC: How does the accelerator program work? What kind of resources does it provide?
CM: Natural product entrepreneurs struggle with a myriad questions, like: Do I need a CFO?; When do I hire sales employees? And how do I structure their compensation package? Our expert videos tap into successful entrepreneurs in the space who have answers to these questions, as well as lawyers, branding and marketing experts. We are building a comprehensive content library, adding new videos every week on topics like retail and distribution, product formulation and finance. Right now we are curating outside content from the industry, as well as our own content, and it is all labeled, so users know where it is coming from.
In speaking with so many natural product entrepreneurs, we heard again and again that the hardest thing for them is to find the right partners, and resources are limited. A comprehensive, trusted service provider directory has been missing, an Angie’s List-style directory of attorneys, suppliers, contract regulators, branding consultants, etc. With the service providers database, we allow companies to weigh in on their experiences with service providers. A lot of times, these services can be make or break for startups. In fact, over the years at our shows, a lot entrepreneurs simply come for education, networking and recommendations from other companies in the space.
We are building out a community resource on the platform, in which users can get answers and share resources in real-time. We had entrepreneur ambassadors help shape the user experience of the site, and we’re hoping it will become a collaboration resource and an inspiration resource, a place where entrepreneurs can share the inspiration that keeps them going.
FTC: What does the program cost and do you have any type of vetting process for users?
CM: We have no vetting process for program members, they just have to be committed enough to pay the $50 per month. Users also get discounted access to the in person accelerator bootcamps we’re going to offer, as well as access to in-person networking events hosted at each of the Expos. We know we’re not going to make money through this program, but it’s not about that. For us it’s about supporting companies and providing them with the resources to succeed, which will ultimately be good for New Hope and for the natural products industry.
FTC: How many entrepreneurs have been using the program, and what has user engagement been like?
CM: Before last week’s launch, we had 100 beta testers in total and many more have signed up since then. So far, users are very happy with the content and are surprised at the amount we already have on the site. We started building the content in January and decided to launch with a minimum viable product. We plan to build out the community as we go, as well as the data in the service provider directory.
FTC: How do you plan to quantify the impact of the program?
As of now, we haven’t put that much thought into the growth we would like to see. Most of the responses we’ve received so far have been anecdotal. We’re most interested in seeing where connections come together and how they play out. Our ultimate goal with the program is to connect companies with the right partners or the people who will help them bring their business to the next level. For us specifically, the attrition rate for first time exhibitors was concerning. We want to make an impact with this program by helping those small companies succeed and teaching them that acquisition is not the only way to grow. Our content is focused around promoting growth while still staying true the the founding mission of the business.
Editor’s Note: On October 2, 2013 Carlotta Mast made the following clarifications to her statements.
New Hope Natural Media expects to generate some revenue with the NEXT Accelerator because it is a paid subscription service. However, the overall goal of the program is to support as many natural products entrepreneurs as possible by providing them with the resources to succeed.
New Hope Natural Media plans to quantify the impact of the accelerator based on how many companies it is able to help, either by providing needed information or resources or by helping them to connect with the right partners, mentors or advisors.