How This Two-Time Product Founder Is Building An Innovation Studio For The Food Ecosystem
Written by Alison Gilbert, originally for Forbes.com
Jenn Goggin is co-founder and partner of Startle, an innovation studio for the food ecosystem.
Goggin has built two tech products in the food space prior, an online marketplace for food producers and wholesalers, and a digital transparency platform for local food called Pippin Foods--this platform was acquired last summer.
Goggin and her two co-founders are on a mission to bring innovation to big food.
The food and agriculture industry has not evolved as quickly as other sectors such as transportation, medicine, and media, in part due to perishable inputs and tight margins. However, the industry desperately needs to evolve in order to meet the demand of our continually growing population and longer life spans.
In building this innovation studio, Goggin and her partners seek to alleviate this pressure by bringing new and creative approaches to the way we conceive of, produce, transport and purchase food.
Goggin dives into why it’s so important to fix the food ecosystem and shares strategic and tactical product-building learnings--including insights from her experience being acquired.
Below is a condensed version of our conversation.
Gilbert: Why is it so important that we innovate in the food systems space?
Goggin: There are two big areas of our food system where innovative technology, science and design could really help.
The first is environmental.
Growing and producing food requires resources: land, water, and power--and often results in a large amount of undesirable outputs: packaging waste, carbon emissions, pollution, to name just a few. Food, of course, isn’t a luxury product for which we can decide that the negatives outweigh the positives and simply stop producing it. We have to get creative to find ways of getting what our growing population needs out of the Earth while simultaneously improving it for future generations.
The second is human health.
I am a firm believer in the adage “we are what we eat,” and, unfortunately, what we now eat is causing a number of global health crises. It’s not as simple as being able to solve obesity by having everyone avoid high-calorie foods, solving diabetes by having everyone avoid sugar, or solving heart disease by having everyone avoid cholesterol. Our bodies are complex, nutrition is complex, and, like healthy soil in agriculture, the whole system works together in ways we don’t fully understand yet. Plus, there are other factors at work besides individual choice and willpower. The food we eat depends a lot on what is accessible to us, what we can afford, how it is marketed to us, and how it is produced behind the scenes.
Gilbert: How is your innovation studio going to help the food system?
Goggin: Core to our strategy at Startle is to work with larger existing food corporations to help them put their existing resources and structures to use in smart and innovative ways. These partnerships let us push new innovations forward farther and faster than we would be able to otherwise.
We have to balance using existing systems with approaching the future as a blank slate , which is necessary for radically different and truly innovative products.
Let’s take food retail, for example. Most of us still buy the majority of our food at our local grocery store or supermarket, although online grocery is becoming more common. So, of course, an immediate step for many retailers will be to add a delivery component to their operations. But we should also be designing other solutions that help food retailers provide convenience and personalization for their shoppers but aren't necessarily based on either their current brick-and-mortar footprints or online shopping models. The more we can re-envision the seemingly simple act of buying food, the more we can help people optimize what they feed themselves. Those are the kinds of concepts we’re looking forward to digging into at Startle.
Gilbert: What’s one of the biggest lessons you’re bringing to how you build Startle from the other two companies you’ve built?
Goggin: It took me two companies to learn the importance of storytelling and messaging! Advice to founders almost always emphasizes finding the right co-founder, the right CTO, the right investors, and product-market fit. Of course, all of those pieces are incredibly important. But even if the strongest team builds the coolest product that meets a market need, it won’t go anywhere without a compelling message about why this will make the customer’s life better.
The challenge is: a good story doesn’t come with easily measurable results. There isn’t one specific point that you can reference and gather data on. A good story impacts how your company is spoken about in the press, the interactions your company has on social media, and the likelihood of people, even if they aren’t yet customers, talking about your company to friends, who may then become customers even if they were never in direct contact with your company before. You can quickly calculate the ROI of Google ads-- calculating the return on a well-crafted story takes a long time and often brings benefits that go beyond sales figures .
I am lucky that one of my partners in Startle is an experienced storyteller herself. When we started working together, I saw firsthand how she would take in-depth internal discussions and turn those into sharply honed compelling and easily digestible messages. It was amazing how much more quickly we were able to advance conversations and partnerships after she had worked her magic.
Gilbert: Any other key lessons stand out from your prior product-building experience?
Goggin: I learned the importance of partnerships.
In my first company, we were heads down and fully focused on what we were building on our own. We didn’t prioritize partnerships with the exception of some efforts at cross-marketing, which I believe led to a lot of lost opportunities that could have helped us grow faster in two ways: one, by preventing us from having to waste resources on rebuilding features or functions that someone else was already doing well, and two, by tapping into more established companies’ user bases as a way to spur growth.
I kept that in mind when I began planning my second company, which began as a platform that helped large grocers stock, promote and sell local food, and at the same time, helped consumers find local products and access information about exactly how, when and where those products were grown.
There were two distinct pieces of this platform: the sourcing piece, and the marketing piece. By partnering with a large national wholesaler who already worked with a handful of local farms, but wasn’t able to maintain farm-specific data on those products as they moved through the supply chain, I was able to build out just the second half for my MVP and still provide a full solution to my grocer clients. Not only did that free up resources, but it also led to a second pilot program with a grocery chain with whom that wholesaler already had a relationship.
Gilbert: Can you share your experience with being acquired? How was that for you? Any learnings to share from that?
Goggin: It was a very valuable experience! The acquisition happened early on in the life of my second company. At that point, I had built the MVP, run one pilot, and had two bigger pilot partners lined up for the next season. My initial platform was incredibly synergistic to my acquirer’s platform, they had resources where I didn’t, and I respected and liked the team and still do--it was the right move at the time.
What I didn’t fully appreciate was that when you’re acquired, especially by another young company, you’re stepping into a whole other set of visions, plans, and priorities. In that situation, it’s very hard to continue to build and iterate on a new concept that isn’t yet fully tied to the company’s main product.
If I had remained independent a little bit longer until I was able to generate unquestionable traction and collect more data, then the additional resources and structure provided by a larger company would have served as rocket fuel. But because of the early timing, the path forward that I originally had in mind got lost in the midst of everything else going on.
Gilbert: How do you feel you’ve personally grown the most on your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Goggin: You know the opening scene of Crazy Rich Asians when the main character wins a poker hand because, as she says, her opponent wasn’t playing to win--he was playing to not lose? That perfectly sums up how I’ve grown as an entrepreneur. I have always been a conservative person by nature, and when I first set out on my own, the risks I had to take made me uncomfortable. Because of that, I hedged my bets constantly, and therefore what I created was always good, but never great.
Now, I’m not reckless. I’ll still examine an opportunity with a critical eye. But years of experience and hindsight have given me a sense of security that I have my skills, my creativity, and my personal network to fall back on. So if there’s a chance that the end result of that opportunity could be huge, I can finally accept that risk with confidence and without hesitation.