Ask an Accelerator Expert: Chelsea Callahan Huson, Good Food Accelerator

good food accelerator

Accelerators are an important engine of food entrepreneurship, but no two are the same. We’ve highlighted the breadth of food accelerator programs before on the blog, but we wanted to get insight into a particularly unique one: the Good Food Accelerator, run by non-profit Family Farmed. We sat down with Senior Coordinator of Entrepreneurial Programs at Family Farmed, Chelsea Callahan Huson, for the scoop on their intensive model.

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What’s the Good Food Accelerator?

The Good Food Accelerator is one of several programs run by Family Farmed, a non-profit with a mission to expand the production, distribution and marketing of local and sustainable food in order to enhance the social, economic and environmental health of our communities. Now in it’s 5th year, this fellowship program for food entrepreneurs takes 9 emerging Good Food CPG brands through an intensive 6-month curriculum each year November through April. Throughout the program, these fellows are paired with industry leading mentors, and connected to retailers, potential customers, investors and sources of financing. And each week we’re delivering curriculum that focuses on the key components of a well structured business. This means we’re talking about entrepreneurial financing, leadership, operations, go to market strategy, fundraising, and everything in between. As we work through these topics the goal is to give the fellows all the resources and connections they need to apply lessons learned to their businesses and ultimately scale up. One of the greatest resources they’re given is a one-on-one strategic partnership with a “super mentor” who can help them really think through and apply the session topics, give advice, and help with program deliverables. We also try our best to make the Accelerator a safe and supportive space where our fellows can connect with and learn from each other and feel supported through all the struggles (and triumphs!) of running a small business.

Throughout the program the fellows are working on several iterations of a business plan, market development plan, marketing plan, investor pitches, and much more. After 6 months our fellows graduate from the program and come out with the skills, connections and resources needed to grow and scale their businesses.

The basic eligibility requirements are on your website, but can you talk more about the selection process?

We have an amazing selection committee which is made up of mentors, investors, industry experts, and GFA alumni. We open up the application over the summer and applicants have about a month to fill it out, during which we host an application celebration event for prospective applicants to learn more about the program and meet alums and mentors. We close the application in September, and at that time, our internal team will look through the initial applications, sift it down to 15-20 and bring in those semi-finalists to meet with the selection committee. The first round is 2-on-1 interviews – a GFA staff member and a member of the selection committee meeting with each applicant – and then the selection committee gets together to discuss and vote on 12 to 13 companies to bring back for the second round and present to the entire selection committee. From there we have the hard job of whittling it down to 9 or 10 businesses that are selected for the Accelerator. Our applicant pool is growing each year- this past year, we had 50 applicants- so it’s a pretty competitive process and always a tough decision for the committee!
good food accelerator
Family Farmed hosts a Good Food Financing and Innovation Conference at Morgan Manufacturing in Chicago, IL on Tuesday June 19, 2018. Photo: Christopher Dilts / Family Farmed

What are you looking for in the interview process?

There are two main criteria for the program. One is that they need to be a local “good food company,” which means their core business values align with Family Farmed’s definition of Good Food: delicious, healthy, and accessible food produced as close to home as possible, by producers who use sustainable, humane and fair practices. And geographically they have to be located in the Midwest. The second most important factor is that they have to be at a point where they’re ready to scale. Ideally we want to see revenue-generating companies that have some market traction and are ready to take the business to the next level, but we will also consider pre-revenue companies if they have the right team in place and intend to launch during the program.

It’s a rigorous, 6-month program, so we’re also looking for passionate entrepreneurs who are ready to learn and apply the learnings to their businesses in order to scale. It’s subjective at times, but we’re betting on the person as much as the company, so we want to feel confident that each entrepreneur will really commit to the program and has the ability to take his/her company to the next level with the right support. Another element we’re considering in selection is crafting a diverse cohort. Everyone comes in with different skill sets and backgrounds, so someone might have an MBA or a business background, while another applicant is a marketing whiz. We like to look at all the applicants and their backgrounds and think about how they would be able to help each other throughout the program and beyond because often times the greatest learning comes from collaborating and connecting with the other fellows that are all going through similar struggles.

It seems like a more rigorous curriculum than other accelerators, is that true?

It is very rigorous. I can’t say if it’s more or less so than other Accelerators, but it is a different structure and longer term than most, which I think allows for a very comprehensive and rigorous curriculum. Many Accelerator models take in fellows from all over the country or world, so they’re often flying the cohort members in for a week or so each month where it’s intense learning for a short period and then the entrepreneurs go back home to run their businesses. For the GFA, since the companies have to be local that makes it easier to have a different structure where we are able to meet weekly on Mondays throughout the six months at 1871 and have more of a continuous learning experience. We’ve gotten great feedback about this structure from our fellows because it allows them to dedicate one day a week to learning and strategizing and then they have the rest of the week to implement those lessons and run their businesses. They are also working through many deliverables and homework throughout the program outside of our Monday sessions, but we only assign work that we know will help sustain and grow the businesses in the long term so in the end it’s well worth the extra effort and time.

What is the participant-mentor relationship like? What kind of access do fellows have to the mentors?

We essentially have three tiers of mentors. Our Super Mentors are in one-on-one relationships with our fellows, and are the most involved. They’re typically meeting with their assigned fellows once a week, whether that’s on the phone or in-person. We check in with both parties regularly to make sure the relationship is a good one and mutually beneficial. Then, we have our presenters. These are industry experts who come in to speak about and workshop topics such as building a pitch deck, crafting a marketing strategy, or how to sell to buyers and get product on the shelf. And finally we have our general network and mentors. These are people we can turn to for ad-hoc assistance. For example, if a fellow comes to us with a legal question we can connect them to an attorney in our network. We are lucky to have mentors with expertise in a broad range of topics so we are able to connect our fellows to them as needed for additional support. All of our presenters and mentors have made themselves really available to our cohort, and as a non-profit, they are mostly giving their time for free so we are so appreciative and thankful for them!

good food accelerator
Family Farmed hosts a Good Food Financing and Innovation Conference at Morgan Manufacturing in Chicago, IL on Tuesday June 19, 2018. Photo: Christopher Dilts / Family Farmed

At the end of 6 months, besides the deliverables, what other skills will an entrepreneur leave with?

The goal is to develop skills in all of the core curriculum subjects: entrepreneurial finance, leadership, operations, go-to-market strategy and fundraising. That means understanding their finances and being able to talk about them confidently to investors, learning their own strengths and weaknesses as leaders and building a solid team and positive company culture, understanding supply chain and how to work with retailers, distributors and brokers, and building and executing on a solid business plan, marketing plan and market development plan. We also spend a lot of time on pitching and presentation skills!

What does it mean to be an alumni of the program?

As our alumni pool grows we’re realizing that many of the companies need continuing support and education, so that’s a big focus for us right now. Currently we’re building out the continuing education piece as part of our extension programming, which will include more workshops and events based on topics relevant to our alumni and their business needs as they grow.

We also feature our alumni at all of our events such as the Good Food Expo and the Financing & Innovation Conference, and we often connect them to opportunities through our network. Many of our alumni give back to the program as well by sitting on panels, connecting with or mentoring program fellows, and sitting on our selection committee. We  are always looking for ways to continue to support our alumni and help foster opportunities for growth, and we are appreciative of the support they give back to the program as well.

Can you talk more about your shared revenue model?

In a traditional accelerator model, the program typically takes equity in the businesses in exchange for a cash investment and the value of the Accelerator experience. As a nonprofit, we can’t invest in the companies or provide any financial support like many other accelerators do, but instead we have a shared revenue model where businesses pay an annual fee based on revenue growth after program completion. Since it is free to participate in the program, the revenue share model is a way for us to sustain the program and support continuing education and resources for our alumni and future cohorts. How it works is that we take a very modest percentage of the increase in sales that a fellow’s business realizes after participation in the program. We believe participation in the GFA will help entrepreneurs develop skills and resources needed to grow their businesses, so as those businesses grow the small payments back to the program also allow our program to grow and support more entrepreneurs.

Do you have any plans to expand?

Right now, the plan is to expand our offerings across the Good Food spectrum. In the accelerator, we can only help 9 businesses a year, but so many more come to us for ad hoc services and help with their businesses. Luckily, we’ve been awarded $500,000 from the USDA LFPP this year and we’re using it to develop our extension programming. Now with GFA Extension we’ll be able to work with earlier stage businesses through our GFAx program and later stage businesses through our GFA + program. Through GFAx we’re looking to address the needs of earlier stage businesses as well as underrepresented entrepreneurs in underserved communities. This is going to take the form of shortened, more specialized and flexible classroom curriculum delivered with partner organizations in underserved communities. The GFA+ is targeted at later stage companies that are past the point of needing to go through the full GFA program but need more ad hoc services. This will take the form of more workshops, events and consulting, and we’ll include our alumni in this programming as well. We’re very excited for these new initiatives and to be able to support more Good Food entrepreneurs and grow more Good Food businesses!

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