“I have always loved food,” Emily explains. In college, Emily Olson hung around entrepreneurial-minded friends and focused on finding an outlet for her passion around food. She changed her major from chemistry to nutrition and food science. She hit upon the idea of being a food writer so she started writing a food column for the paper and did some freelance food-related writing. But that wasn’t quite the right niche.
Emily’s story unfolds: “I realized that what I wanted wasn’t to write about food but to do food. I am passionate about food.” Emily sought out culinary classes; she worked at a restaurant, and a few other related things. “I was searching for what part of the food chain was where I wanted to play? And then I landed a job at The Fresh Market.” In her job, Emily saw how difficult it was for small producer to make it into the market. And that problem fueled a solution – Foodzie.
Today, Foodzie is a San Francisco-based online artisan food market which sells high-quality fresh food direct-to- consumer. Emily conceived of the idea with her two best friends from college at Virginia Tech, Rob LaFave and Nik Bauman, who at the time were working on another entrepreneurial idea. They liked Emily’s idea better so they helped develop the idea and joined as co-founders.
The team took the idea to TechStars and was part of the class of 2008. After Demo Day, Emily raised over $1M of angel funding to get Foodzie off the ground.
Origins. The concept behind Foodzie stems from Emily’s experience with The Fresh Market, where she had worked her way up to Private Label Brand Manager: “I learned all about the food space, brick and mortar stores, distribution, customer service, business models, and the importance of the supply chain.” During her stint at The Fresh Market, Emily recognized how difficult it was for the small producer to make it into the market, “I saw how hard it was for small, high quality products to get to consumers. I conceived of Foodzie to solve that problem because we could market multiple premium products directly to the consumer.”
All three of them were working at the time so planning a new venture was challenging. “With a full-time job it is hard, but we kept working it and the idea kept evolving and then you start to get over the hurdles as a team,” Emily states. “In the fall, The Fresh Market promoted me to Manager of their ecommerce business. And I started shipping products from the store. That’s when I started to think, wow, this is really possible. I could be doing this as my new venture!”
Emily tells me, “I was serious about doing Foodzie. We had to do a gut check. We realized that we believed in our idea and so we decided to get through the holiday season  and quit our jobs in January.” Emily ended up taking a part-time job waitressing and Rob and Nik did the equivalent. “But we had time to work on Foodzie,” she counters.
In January 2008 the team solidified the name, incorporated and launched the startup. They went to a few food shows and pitched the idea with a simple splash page. Then they heard about TechStars in Boulder, Colorado and they applied. “We were shocked that we got in. But that experience took us from an idea to pitching in front of investors where we landed $1M in funding and that’s pretty much where we are today.” Foodzie will celebrate its three-year anniversary this December, 2011. Emily is 27.
Startup challenges. Emily and her co-founders faced and still face numerous hurdles: finding the right business model, customer development, product development, funding, achieving breakeven. But those challenges have not dampened Emily’s infectious enthusiasm for the business nor her passion: “I LOVE food,” she exclaims! “And Foodzie enables me to take that to the world,” she concludes.
Foodzie today. Operations are lean and mean. The company is small, only seven people with several in fulfillment, writers and contract developers. One of the team members is Emily’s sister, Christina. Emily and Rob will be married next summer, proving that couples CAN work together (also see Modcloth post from this blog).
Foodzie relocated to San Francisco. The move was prompted by the need to be near her investors, the majority of which, including the lead investors, are in the Bay Area. Emily describes it, “To work with our mentors it was important to be where they were. It is also important to be in a place where stuff is happening in your industry. You have to give yourself the best shot for success. For us, the Bay Area is a food place. People care where their food comes from here. And the Bay Area has proven technology. We wanted to be at the intersection.”
Emily and her team interact with their mentors and investors on a regular basis: Kent Goldman from First Round Capital; Jeff Clavier from SoftTech VC, Tim Ferriss (author of The 4-Hour Workweek), and Elad Gil (who sold his company Mixer Labs to Twitter). They rely on their TechStars mentors too, including TS founder, David Cohen.
The Foodzie team today continues to focus on building the marketplace. They have a new offering for people who want to discover what they like in the way of new food. For these folks, Foodzie offers a subscription service called the Tasting Box. This allows consumers to try new and interesting foods. For $19.99 per month a customer experiences a different theme each month.
The Tasting Box is proving to be a great way for people to taste and buy new products that they have not seen or tasted before, “And these folks convert really well,” Emily tells me. She continues, “We aim to increase the discovery process, to make it easy for the customer to figure out what they love.”
Emily and Foodzie are all about, “making people happy and finding what delights them.” She considers herself a “curator.” And certainly Foodzie offers an opportunity for the myriad of small food producers that use real ingredients. Foodzie offers them a channel partner that is direct-to-consumer. It’s a mutual win-win for both supplier and Foodzie.
Fears. Emily laughs when I ask her what keeps her awake at night, “Nothing keeps me awake!” She’s clearly a good sleeper…
Has she made any mistakes? None that are fatal, obviously. But she notes that at a recent TechStars reunion every question was about customer development and how important that was. “One guy kept wondering why the companies hadn’t done customer development. He criticized them saying that they didn’t talk to enough people to validate things.” This reminded Emily that we entrepreneurs build businesses upon our own hypotheses. But you have to be hyper-customer-centric to get “true customer feedback.” And Foodzie has worked really hard to get that: “We are very focused on customer development,” Emily states firmly.
Emily is acutely aware of the highly fragile nature of what she is trying to accomplish, “It’s hard, harder than anything you will ever do, but it’s so totally worth it to embark on this path,” she encourages.
Take aways. Emily tells me, “The biggest thing I have learned is patience. Entrepreneurship is a process. And this is so cliché, but you have to have passion; you have to be totally madly in love with your concept, industry, and business to keep you attached to it through the ups and downs.”
Emily believes that team dynamics are paramount. She calls Rob “inherently entrepreneurial,” while she embodies the “passion for food.” Together, they have been a good mix. And the rest of the team has evolved to be highly complementary.
Mostly, Emily urges to let the passion for an idea drive the rest: “You have to believe in an idea so much that you have to solve it.” And she concludes with, “That’s why I am an entrepreneur; I am scratching my own itch.”
Good luck, Emily and Foodzie. Hmmm, the Brut Cacao Cabernet Brownies sound good right now!