Natural Products Expo West

CPG accelerator SKU blends mentorship & networking to help startups succeed

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Starting and growing a company is hard – especially in the highly competitive food and beverage industry, but Austin, Texas-based accelerator SKU is tipping the odds of success in favor of entrepreneurs with its “proven blend of mentorship, community,” unique programming and industry connections. 

Founded in 2011, SKU is an accelerator for market validated consumer product goods that founder Shari Wynne Ressler said was created “because we saw that a lot of food companies and other consumer product companies … really needed the help and mentorship” that could only really be provided by “people who had previously had success in the consumer products business.”

With that in mind, Wynne Ressler said SKU has access to 150 mentors and companies in each of its classes have a dedicated group of 40 to 50 mentors to help guide them towards success.

But mentorship is not the only ingredient for growth in such a competitive industry, Wynne Ressler said. Rather, she explained to FoodNavigator-USA at Natural Products Expo West in California earlier this month that for companies to succeed they need to have a passionate entrepreneur at the helm.

“When you are looking at the companies that are going to make it, it is about the entrepreneur. It is about their passion and the ability to stick through growing a company” through the good times and the bad, she said. “What is so great about consumer products is they are passion products. People found these companies because they believe in what they are doing.”

Often times, however, entrepreneurs may have the passion but they don’t have the know-how to run a business. So, when considering applicants for its classes, SKU also looks for entrepreneurs who are willing to listen and learn, Wynne Ressler said.

“They have to be smart. They have to be flexible. And they have to be able to take the right advice and get the right advice, which is why SKU was really founded, which is to get them the right kinds of advice and resources,” she added.

She also noted that companies that already have advisers working closely with them who “can come along for the ride as we work with you,” will help win SKU’s favor during the class application process, Wynne Ressler said.

“We can certainly put all of that around you, but that is always going to be something we look at. Are there smart people around the company?” she added, noting this is a sign that a company is “getting ready to break out.”

The next big thing

SKU has demonstrated its ability to pick winners and spot emerging trends with many highly successful companies in its previous four classes, including EPIC Bars, a company that changed the meat snack landscape virtually overnight.

With her nose for what is next and based on in her interactions with many startups and up and coming brands, Wynne Ressler predicts that there is still a lot of room to grow in the meat snacks category and that meat sticks, in particular, should see significant growth going forward.

She noted that one company in SKU’s upcoming class five plays in this space – El Norteno Foods, which makes meat sticks.

But the end product is only one reason that Wynne Ressler says she is impressed with the company’s potential. She said its business model also is notable because it targets the Hispanic market, which Wynne Ressler notes, “a lot of people want to figure out.”

Another area to watch is the growing consumer interest in companies’ social mission.

“There is a lot more accountability on sourcing,” which is leading consumers to also scrutinize whether companies provide social good beyond their bottom lines, she said. 

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