After two decades working in sales and marketing for some of the biggest natural and organic food companies in the Lower Mainland, Andrea Gray-Grant decided it was high time to launch her own brand and manufacturing plant. With a wealth of experience behind her, she was poised to "take over the world." But within five years, the business had folded.
"It imploded. It was pretty awful," remembered Gray-Grant. "The brand went really well, it wasn't a branding issue. And that is exactly why I do this work, because you don't always know what the things lurking in the corner are. You don't always understand that when you start a business."
Gray-Grant is the founder and owner of Good to Grow Natural Products Coaching, a North Vancouver-based company that offers courses for start-up food processors to help get their products to market. She will be holding a two-day workshop at the Whistler Chamber of Commerce next month.
"The course basically looks at all the different areas you need to know to process a product," Gray-Grant explained, covering everything from business planning, finance, packaging regulations, quality assurance and market access.
The workshops are part of a government program that pays for food industry consultants to support emerging entrepreneurs in the burgeoning field of food processing.
"The government eventually came up with this eight-module teaching program, but we never wrote it. I think it's a great program, but I thought we could improve on it because I have all this hands-on experience having started from nothing," Gray-Grant explained. "So we tweaked it. We use eight modules as a base, but we basically use examples of the things I experienced in terms of research and development or quality assurance or any of those things that I personally went through with other companies or my own."
The flurry of information can be overwhelming, but is ultimately necessary for those just breaking into the industry.
"It gives you this 30,000-foot view and typically what happens after two days is people are like, 'Oh my god I had no idea I had to know this much.' And we always say that, 'Of course you need to know all this information, but you don't need to know it all tomorrow.' So you sit down and figure out where your holes are and it gives you a really good jumping-off point," Gray-Grant said. "You're doing yourself the biggest favour, because at the end of it all, if you say, 'Oh my god, I don't want to do this,' you just saved yourself $50,000 and a lot of stress."
With relatively low start-up costs coupled with the explosion of farmers markets, the world of food processing is a crowded one, and, increasingly many of those emerging entrepreneurs are in their 20s and 30s. That's why Gray-Grant preaches the importance of standing out from the crowd.
"You've got to have a good story," she said. "If you don't have a good story or you don't know how to get your products on the shelves, you're not going to."
Many aspiring food entrepreneurs try to distinguish themselves with eye-catching packaging, which is important, Gray-Grant said, but not at the expense of the other facets of the business.
"One of the things you find with younger people getting into this, they don't want to take steps to have the best packaging on the market, they want to have the best packaging right now, they want to have the brand that stands out right now," she said. "What happens from time to time is they will overextend themselves on doing branding and packaging and everything else, and they'll have no money left over to actually sell the product and market it."
That's why Gray-Grant's company has committed to helping entrepreneurs get a sense of every aspect of the business no matter how unsexy it may be.
"Entrepreneurs are often big dreamers and they have these great ideas and they may be these great marketers underneath all of that," she said. "But where they really fall down typically is in operation and in finance, which was exactly my struggle as well."
The "Prepare your Business for Success" workshop is set for April 14 and 15 and runs from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Registration is $105, open until April 9. Visit www.goodtogrowproducts.com/workshops to sign up.