There’s a proven model for accelerating tech start-ups: Host pitch days, help would-be founders polish ideas, connect them with funders, and sit back while they conquer the universe.
If it works for tech, it’ll work for artisanal food, right?
No, it doesn’t seem like it will. Local Food Lab tried. The company launched in Silicon Valley 1.5 years ago based on just such an accelerator model. It invited small food companies focused on building a healthier, more just, more resilient food system, pairing them with hundreds of mentors.
It was an exciting moment, written up in the tech press. But what they found was that there’s no innate need for a local food company to take over the world. A small, vibrant goat cheese company is a perfectly legitimate business. Only it doesn’t necessarily make a ton of sense to investors.
It’s part of a broader push to figure out how to apply what has worked to such tremendous effect in the tech world to the blossoming food world. What is the kitchen incubator, really, but a business incubator and co-working space with more sinks? But the challenge here is that the dynamics of those industries are different in significant enough ways that they make translation difficult.
So, after three rounds and about 30 startups, Local Food Lab is trying something else. In December, they gave up on the accelerator model and pivoted towards a portfolio-based website. It’s a bit like LinkedIn for local food entrepreneurs, with plenty of gorgeous photos of things to eat and farmers in front of their crops. They want to build a picture of what the business model of a successful local food company looks like. But there’s also a bit of Kickstarter in there, too. The site forces startups to address what co-founder Krysia Zajonc talks about as the ‘Grandma’s cookies’ problem: Your recipe is so good, so rooted in your personal experience that trying to package it as a one-page business proposal feels funny. Food startups really need to get over it, says Zajonc.
They’re also trying to get head of a trend. “This new freelance cohort,” Zajonc calls it. These aren’t seasonal laborers or contract hires, at least not in the traditional sense. But the data behind the site suggests its the sort of people who are using the new Local Food Lab the most. Zajonc gives the profile: “I’m a freelancer. I have some skills in cultivating certain vegetables. I can also make some things in the kitchen and I move around from job to job as the seasons dictate. But I’m proud of this work, and I deserve a portfolio just like a graphic designer who can show all their work.” It’s not a huge market yet, says Zajonc, but they’re seeing real interest from kids graduating from college who are interested in doing something small-scale “in food or farm.” She thinks the new platform can help create a fair and open market for their labor.
Zajonc says that she and her co-founder started the company because they’d struggled themselves to create a series of food companies. She’d spent time at Facebook, and had seen plenty of startup founders — “young and male, they were always male” — tap into the rich ecosystem that has grown up around getting tech companies off the ground. “I had this idea that I’d have all these resources because startups are so easy,” she says with a laugh. They tried a breakfast restaurant, a bookstore and case, a chocolate company. But it was really hard: finding capital, finding talent, figuring out the ways of the industry. So, with a grant from Columbia Business School, they set out to fill the gaps and make it easier to run a food company.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.