Retail Veterans Lend Insight to CPG Startups

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 182 views 

According to Harvard Business School business administration professor Clayton Christensen, 30,000 new consumer products are launched each year — and 95 percent of them fail.

Matt Fifer came across that fact in early 2012 while reading an analysis authored by Christensen titled “Milkshake Marketing.”

For a guy with more than two decades of experience in the retail industry, Fifer recalled the statistics as shocking.

“But what shocked me the most was his attributing the failure to being bad products,” he said. “The whole point of Milkshake Marketing is basically that products fail because products suck. They don’t do the job consumers have ‘hired’ them to do.

“When I read that, I [thought], ‘This is a guy who clearly has no idea how difficult it is to get an item on the shelf, and how much more difficult it is to keep it there.’”

Christensen’s report planted the seed for Fifer’s latest venture, a consulting service called Selling to the Masses.

The firm identifies and then supports early-stage consumer product companies with a variety of services, getting them to a point of capably doing business with a major retailer.

The concept of a retail accelerator is similar to California-based tech accelerator Y Combinator, a group that does seed funding for high-potential information technology startups from all over the world.

STTM will focus on three areas — development, mentorship and community — all with a goal of helping CPG (consumer packaged goods) startups prepare their retail sales models while taking a product from concept to the shelf, and then successfully keeping it there.

“One of the easiest sales you’ll ever make is the first one,” Fifer said. “After that, it’s about growing business, managing expenses, developing a great forecast. All the things that go into keeping a promise to that retailer. Broken promises are what I believe causes a product to fail with a retailer.”

There are some events that will eventually be offered at a cost, but STTM services are free to its clients.

Derek Ridenoure, a national account manager for The C.F. Sauer Co., is also a key principal at STTM as the head of Vendorville Media, the production and distribution arm of the company that is developing content for the firm’s YouTube channel, as well as an upcoming television show in the works that will begin airing in early 2015.

Former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executive Lisa Clark and Earl Hale are also part of the leadership team. Hale is the owner of Toy Robot Productions, a media production company based in Bentonville.


No Better Place Than NWA

Fifer has helped launch more than 10 companies in the last decade, and is actively involved in a number of startups today.

His most recent business before STTM, 8th & Walton, is similar in intent to the newly created company, but with a different focus and approach.

8th & Walton was founded in 2006 to educate suppliers on what works and what doesn’t when doing business with Walmart.

The Bentonville company today offers a system of learning that includes 80 courses taught in seven countries, a locally produced television show that airs each week on local NBC affiliate KNWA-TV and a newsletter that reaches more than 40,000 supplier teams.

Fifer, who left the company in February, said 8th & Walton is the gold standard for Walmart supplier education. He hopes STTM will be a similar model for assisting suppliers in their business dealings with all retailers.

And there’s no better place for a job of this kind than Northwest Arkansas, said Fifer, a serial entrepreneur since 2005 following a 13-year career working for Walmart.

Bentonville is, of course, the home of the world’s largest retailer. But with three other major retailers (Sam’s Club, Harps Food Stores Inc. and Acumen Brands) and nearly 1,400 supplier teams with top managers all headquartered here,  there is more intellectual and practical retail brainpower centralized here than anywhere else in the world, Fifer said, making Northwest Arkansas the center of the retail universe.

“This is where the ideas are, the talent is, the capital is and certainly where the contacts are,” he said.

Fifer said STTM has had success finding potential companies for its programs through popular crowdfunding websites, a popular gathering place for early-stage CPG companies.

“The Internet has created an endless number of opportunities for us not just to find them, but to vet them,” he said.

Executive leadership consultant Tony Hawk, one of the mentors who has partnered with STTM, said leveraging the tremendous talent in the area will help broaden the retail industry’s scope of what can be accomplished here.

“I truly believe that this will help Northwest Arkansas become known as more than just a place to do business with Walmart, but rather as a center for retail and business expertise,” he said.


Mentors Make it Happen

Aside from the Bentonville dynamic, Fifer said the biggest factor that makes STTM out of the ordinary is its mentorship model.

Nearly 40 professionals from the world of retailing and consumer product marketing have agreed to serve as mentors to the founders of early-stage consumer product startups.

Fifer said he is adding mentors every week, who will be available to share their experience and knowledge both in person and through technology (webcasts, online conversations).

Several video and podcast conversations have already been recorded and added to the STTM website,

 Guests thus far have included Redman & Associates founder Mel Redman, Oh Baby Foods Inc. founder Fran Free and entrepreneur T.J. Foltz, who beat out over 4,300 products and won Walmart’s “Get on the Shelf” contest in 2011 with his Humankind Water business.

“Our model allows learners to choose from scores of mentors, each with knowledge and experiences that qualify them to meet very specific needs,” Fifer said.

Fifer said STTM’s clientele right now is in the dozens, and the firm will begin teaching a webinar series late in September.

“We are just now in the process of finalizing mentors and finalizing partners,” he said. The Mars Agency, Collective Bias, Castrol, Rockfish Interactive and Field Agent have all partnered with STTM, according to the website.

Foltz said he is honored to help STTM as a mentor, and said the idea is a winner.

“[Fifer] is clearly trying to bring some diversity into this,” he explained. “A lot of different people with a lot of different experiences. No matter where I’m coming from, as a startup or an established business, somebody in this [mentor] mix is going to have experience, having traveled the road they are walking down now for the first time.”

Free said she is excited that Fifer and Ridenoure are spearheading the company. Ridenoure spent 12 years working for Walmart before moving to the vendor community for the last decade.

“They seem to work really well together and know what’s needed in the vendor community,” she said.

Free’s Fayetteville-based organic baby food company is less than six years old, but its success is well-documented. Oh Baby Foods is on its way to $1 million in sales in 2014, and its products can be found in more than 1,000 stores in 40 states.

Free said one reason the business has been so successful is having experienced professionals to lean on.

“It’s the expertise that’s here; I feel like we’re in the right place,” she said. “When I started, I had no business background or CPG background, but I had a lot of help along the way. I still work with a lot of the mentors I started out with.”

Free said by mentoring with STTM, she hopes to impart wisdom in the same way it was imparted to her.

“I’ve always said I would give back once I was able to,” she said. “Just having a central area to go is pretty valuable. Sometimes you can feel like you are all alone on a desert island when you’re getting started. Having that beacon there is really helpful.”

Andy Wiseman, CEO of Bentonville-based toy company Redwood Ventures, said he, too, has benefitted from great mentors and great leaders in his career. Wiseman founded his company after coming to Northwest Arkansas a decade ago to support the Walmart account for a sporting goods supplier.

“I was the benefactor of very brilliant business minds that ran our business, and I was mentored indirectly by dealing with Walmart,” he said. “You learn a lot dealing with the brilliant minds at Walmart.

“And we all need mentoring at various stages. I think there is a need out there for teaching people how to be effective in selling. Not just to Walmart, but to other retailers and large customers in the U.S., and maybe even abroad. Mentorship is the focus [of STTM] and it’s an exciting thing.”


Companies Go To School

Fifer will host an introductory online webinar scheduled Sept. 13. The 90-minute course is free, and other live online events and workshops are being planned for later in the year.

A CPG school in Bentonville is another development program Fifer is touting. The weekend and week-long versions are intended for companies who are deemed ready to begin selling their products to retailers.

Fifer said tentative dates are scheduled later this fall, bringing the leaders of early-stage companies to Bentonville to interact with STTM mentors and others who have expertise relevant to the retail and CPG industry.

“The idea is to get the leaders of these early-stage companies an idea of what’s coming, what to expect and how to prepare,” Fifer said. “It’s a tremendous networking opportunity and these relationships will be critically important to them.”