Fun fact: Partake Foods founder Denise Woodard received a whopping 86 no’s from potential investors before getting a yes. With products sitting pretty in major retailers (including Target), and celebrities as venture capital partners (Rihanna and Jay Z—no big deal), it would be easy to assume that her journey is on cruise control. During BlogHer Business: Growing Your Business in a Post-Pandemic World, she shut down those delusions of grandeur while spilling the tea about her journey thus far, including the overwhelming and expansive world of funding.
“We had gotten into one region of Whole Foods. We had gotten into Wegmans. It was the summer of 2018. I thought, these will be the proof points we need to go out and successfully raise a seed round of funding,” said the former Coca-Cola executive. “I grossly underestimated how hard that would be. I didn’t come from a network where I knew a lot of investors. I didn’t realize how much of a disadvantage I was starting from.”
Though venture capital funding isn’t the right choice for everyone, Woodard knew it was the right choice for her after reflecting on the type of legacy she wanted to create.
“I thought about what success looked like. For me, it was a household name brand that was gonna live well beyond my years. To be able to grow a business of that size, it takes capital. And I wanted to do it in a reasonably short period of time…not like 30, 40, 50 years. I wanted to make sure we were at a point in our business where we understood our key metrics, where I understood that we had some early success. I felt really confident in what we were doing before I started to take additional outside capital.”
Having that outside capital has made it possible for Woodard and her team to hire more employees, grow distribution, and invest in innovation. Still, that doesn’t mean the work is done. Ahead, more standout soundbites from our conversation, which you can watch in full below.
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What to Know Before Partnering With a VC
“Investors typically, unless they’re a social mission enterprise, are there to make a return. So understanding where they are in the life cycle of their fund, how fast they need a return on this capital, what are their expectations for success, and that you’re aligned with that before you take the money so that there aren’t any misunderstandings.
Scaling a business is stressful in itself. When you’re misaligned with the folks who gave you the capital to scale the business, I think that creates even more stress for everyone.”
The Blessing and Curse of a Celebrity Co-Sign
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m so thankful for the partners that we have involved in our business but they are investors just like our other investors. So while they bring value, whether it’s in the form of the press that was generated from the news of our Series A seed round of fundraising, the work still has to be done. The day-to-day of scaling the business, like getting on store shelves. They are not there to do the work for you.
I think it’s a fantastic stamp of approval to have those folks who are aligned with us from a mission and values perspective…but in no way does it make the journey any easier. There is an amount of pressure that comes from taking investor capital because you want to deliver on their expectations. You want to exceed their expectations.”
The Gritty Work of Product Development
“That was definitely the most challenging part of our business outside of fundraising. I learned very quickly that something you make in your kitchen is very different from something you’re making 100-pound batches of. So I got into my kitchen and I failed horribly, and realized that very quickly, and brought in the help of professionals. We worked with a food scientist and I was able to give her parameters around what our vision was, and she was able to bring that to life. From a testing perspective…I created a Survey Monkey and I remember sending it to 10 mom friends and said, ‘I need each of you to send it to 10 more people’ so we can get to 400 people. And we want to send samples out and get their opinions on what they think, what they like, what they don’t like.
We started really small when we launched the product. We sold cookies out of my car for nine months and did demos every single day to get customer feedback so that we felt good about the product that we had. If you’re not dealing with a product that’s as sensitive, there’s commercial kitchens, there’s some states where there’s cottage laws and you can make products in your own kitchen. There’s so many resources now I think to support startups, specifically food startups. There’s a way to start at a small scale without having to take outside capital from day one.”
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