By Linda Chang
Last fall, FailCon, the conference that convenes start-up founders to share honest insights by directly addressing failure, met with tremendous reception during its second year. There, I met Andrew Naber, founder of FoodSprout. Naber has embarked on a noble and challenging venture to help consumers and food businesses connect the dots on sustainable sourcing. Like many foodies, Naber was inspired by the overarching message coming from films and books like Food, Inc., responding to the urgent call that our over-industrialized food system needs to be reconsidered.
Naber has witnessed the front lines of this disconnect. His business background as a strategy consultant building financial and cost models led him to work with a company in the food industry. There, he also took on marketing analysis projects, which gave him further insight into the mechanisms that serve the disconnect. Traceability and sustainable sourcing are the major pain points. But they are also moving targets.
FoodSprout is a mission of profound commitment. As the now-famous California College of the Arts taco project has shown, tracing the ingredients of any food item can be challenging, to say the least. “Local,” “organic,” and “sustainable” are not one and the same. Global does not necessarily mean less sustainable, while reversing industrial production would mean the undoing of economies around the world. Moreover, the fast-paced business cycles for areas of the food industry such as restaurants can make change nearly impossible without a committed chef or owner. Even with that commitment, restaurants operate on thin margins. How does he keep from feeling like Sisyphus?
“To stay motivated I just focus on the mission and what the overall project is about,” says Naber. “I’ll admit, the hardest part … is the speed at which things move. I can see the big picture 2 years from now and want to build as fast as possible…I have to remind myself to take small steps towards the overall mission and in the end we’ll have an impact on food and the environment.”
Currently, FoodSprout is helping restaurants and groceries take part in an open network of information, with the assistance of crowd sourcing to help verify as much data as possible. They are targeting both B2C and B2B markets, with a SaaS platform for businesses and a rich, website platform for consumers. They hope to build information models that can show the impact of businesses’ purchasing choices while also helping consumers map where food is actually coming from. The next step will be to help businesses make the transition.
Given that I met Naber at FailCon, I asked him the obvious – What would failure look like?
“Never gaining any traction with both the consumer and small restaurants and food producers,” he replied. “We need both to buy in – At the end of the day, if we don’t help businesses become more sustainable we fail and if we don’t help consumers find the info they need we also fail. At the very end of the day, if we don’t also have an impact of helping reduce the stress the food system is having on the planet we also fail.”
We also talked about how FoodSprout might be different from Yelp or Intuit’s Green Snapshot. With such formidable potential competition, how does it make sense to build a platform with such a very narrow and focused specialty? Naber doesn’t see Yelp’s business model allowing for tackling traceability at a deep and credible level. They would have to build out metrics that go beyond user satisfaction reviews. Meanwhile, Intuit is not about building a platform for consumers. As for OpenTable, he sees them as a partner. If he can drive traffic to FoodSprout, then he would want to send consumers to OpenTable to make their reservations. He considers GoodGuide, however, a more serious threat, were they to try to do this work. But GoodGuide is very focused on products you can trace.
FoodSprout’s advantage remains in the focus on the relationship between buyer and seller within a business ecosystem that has tight turnover cycles. Supplies are very perishable and volumes are much smaller. Purveyors operate under high pressures to get the right product out the door. They need reliability in their supply chain and their information. This set of conditions prevents change from happening, but it is exactly the set of conditions ripe for someone with a narrow, razor-sharp focus on a set of services that can provide just the right kind of help.
Andrew Naber aims to be that help.