When you launch a startup, people always ask a million questions.
When you launch a startup during a global pandemic, it pretty much boils down to one.
“Are you out of your mind?”
I don’t let questions like that stop me. Instead, they motivate me.
Of course, as experienced entrepreneurs, my partner James Brennan and I knew we’d face tough challenges even in the best of times. And we knew it would definitely complicate matters. How long would the pandemic last, and how bad would it get? Should we wait for a better moment?
No way. We didn’t wait because we couldn’t. If we didn’t pursue our vision for 100.co — using AI to revolutionize how consumer packaged goods are researched, developed and brought to market — someone else would beat us to the opportunity.
Here are 5 things I learned along the way:
1. Challenges create opportunity
Covid forced people to stay inside and move their shopping online. This transition away from brick & mortar had already been underway, but it’s been accelerated by years. So as it turns out, a disrupted time is actually a great time to develop a disruptive offering, because an event like a pandemic accelerates shifts in behavior. Just look at Instacart, which went from losing a reported $300 million to profitability while also becoming the third most popular online US grocery destination after Walmart and Amazon.
That same shift in behavior made the pandemic a great time for 100.co to launch. Where many CPGs have experienced the shift in consumer behavior as a challenge, we see it as an opportunity. These shifts in consumer behavior are a fantastic opportunity for new CPG products. Categories from beverages to home goods to wellness and beyond are wide open for disruptive new products that better address consumer needs.
Consumers can now discover new brands with a single click. They’re excited by new products that are more tailored to their lifestyle, identity and values (think about the billion-dollar success of Jessica Alba’s Honest Company). And of course, they’re also rating and writing about their product experiences more than ever before. This last point is key, because it enables 100.co’s AI to grasp market trends far more quickly than ever before.
2. Talent can come from anywhere
We relocated to South Florida from California in 2020. We both loved how business-friendly it is, and knew we wanted to base our startup here. Talent was a question, but we felt we could work that out. In fact, it quickly became clear that talent comes from everywhere and works from anywhere. Covid has redefined everyone’s expectation of what it means to work remotely, and we’ve leveraged that shift to find amazing talent from across the country. We’ve acquired companies and hired staff from New York, California, Colorado and beyond. Miami is our center and hub, and the bonus is that the local scene is even better than we hoped. There’s a more diverse tech talent pool in Miami than it gets credit for and there’s strong support from the mayor. A good friend said it reminds him of the tech scene of the early ‘90s, when the Bay Area started heating up. Everyone wants to meet each other and help each other.
3. Use Data to Drive Decisions
If you walk into the office of a brand manager at any big consumer packaged goods company, you’ll immediately find yourself in a sea of spreadsheets. No wonder executives say they’re data-driven! But not all data is created equal. A lot of the process is still surprisingly manual, and a lot of what we generously call “data” is just a collection of opinions. Market research is still firmly old-fashioned: a handful of focus groups or maybe a store walk drive leadership opinions. Often the data about social trends is just a hodgepodge of one-off “insights” assembled by interns.
We knew we could build something better, and we did. Consumers already make their preferences known every day through ratings and comments across retailer websites and in social media. Really good data is out there, but it’s more than even an army of interns can sift through. So we’re using AI to gather and interpret what’s available. Our platform analyzes tens of thousands of data points to suggest market viability, product attributes and brand positioning decisions well before any product investment is made. We’ve already accelerated new product development by over 30%, because we’re able to innovate new product concepts and assess their market feasibility much faster than was ever possible through the old manual methods.
4. Opposites Attract
Co-founders often come from the same industry and even the same company. We don’t fit the mold. I’ve spent most of my career in B2B tech. My co-founder, James Brennan spent most of his career in beverage, beauty, hospitality, and fashion.
Those differences aren’t a weakness. They’re a strength. As General Patton said, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” James challenges me on tech issues with questions that would never occur to me. I challenge him on brand issues, too. That mix of viewpoints is vital to innovation.
5. Authenticity is Key
Today’s consumers are bored with products that feel bland, corporate, and generic. The rise of direct-to-consumer products proves that consumers crave products that feel much more personal and authentic. They’re not willing to go browse the shelves the way their grandparents did. They like discovering products in digital and social media. They like seeing what influencers are talking about. It feels more like a recommendation from a friend — and when there’s a trend of people really loving something new it’s a clear signal that this is a product worth trying. I think Covid further accelerated this trend as people everywhere are looking to feel more connected. So we’re partnering with purpose-driven founders to ensure the products we’re launching are not only effective and a great consumer experience, but they’re also authentic, values-driven, and aligned with what consumers want.
Launching a startup during Covid was a risk, but when the opportunity is big it pays to go for it. Risks can not only be managed, they can be leveraged to help you tackle problems in new ways, and help you find courage you didn’t know you had.
Remember, fortune favors the bold!