Catching Up on the CPG Scene With Naturally Austin’s Aimy Steadman
She is also a founding Board Member for sustainability-focused consumer packages goods (CPG) group Naturally Austin. Additionally, she serves as a CPG Strategic Advisor for Springdale Ventures (which launched in 2019 and now counts 13 total investments), as well as Congress Avenue Ventures (a vehicle for University of Texas alums to support startups launched by University of Texas students; this project now has 15 total investments).
Steadman says that her favorite thing about Austin is the strong community spirit that remains largely unchanged in spite of the city’s significant growth spurt over the last decade:
“We have a rare combination of friendliness and collaboration, while still having a community of highly ambitious professionals that want to make world-class products and services. The combination makes for a uniquely productive startup environment that has been so fun to hang around since first going to SXSW as a teenager.”
We have some of the most important grocery, liquor and convenience store buyers in the world right here in Central Texas. In true Central Texas fashion, these retailer buyers have consistently supported emerging brands. That means everything!
I also want to mention that the artistic and creative community is one of Austin’s startup scene’s secret weapons. We should celebrate them more. This community is such an important part of why Austin-based brands resonate strongly with customers.
How much has it helped this Austin CPG scene that the headquarters of both HEB and Whole Foods are located in the Central Texas area?
BeatBox Beverages was in HEB before we were in Shark Tank in 2014. They have historically shown up and showcased Texas-based makers and our initial sales through their stores were a big reason why Mark Cuban wanted to invest in us in the first place. I know Whole Foods has done the same for other brands in town. These huge retailers help brands not just launch in retail, but launch with a path to scale. Once a brand has a great story with HEB or Whole Foods, they can take that story to other retailers — it truly does set everything in motion.
How has the strength of this Austin CPG ecosystem been impacted by COVID over the last few months?
Of course, many companies are suffering from a range of issues from retail disruptions to swift marketing changes, financing issues and more. Our CPG community, however, continues to find creative solutions and carry on.
Before SXSW 2020 was canceled, the local CPG community was already in a whirlwind over the last-minute cancellation of Expo West in early March. With the help of our Executive Director Emily Kealey, Naturally Austin members have been able to realize ideas for programs like our impromptu TEXPO that was an expo-style event to assist companies to use their product that otherwise would have had to be thrown out due to this Expo West cancelation. Or other opportunities such as providing access to doctors, prescriptions and lab work for a super-discounted rate to ensure our members had some kind of medical care, Anti-Racism training, and finally the Naturally Austin bundle program that provided a revenue stream and additional new exposure to our members when they needed it. All these ideas were implemented within weeks, not months, which is amazing to me.
Despite these various challenges, one of the by-products of COVID has been a surge in demand for some categories of food and beverage products at retail. For example, BeatBox Beverages is sold mainly at grocery, convenience and liquor stores as compared to bars or restaurants. Due to the increased demand from these “off-premise” channels, our value price point, and customers who love having fun with our brand at home, we have been breaking our sales records every month this summer
How does Naturally Austin fit into this Austin CPG ecosystem?
With more than 500 members, Naturally Austin is a membership-based nonprofit with a mission of fostering sustainable and responsible entrepreneurship in the natural products industry.
We work alongside other organizations such as CPG investment funds, accelerators and many other individuals and serve as community hub for the natural products industry. We keep all the relevant Austin and national groups connected to each other through educational and social events and our digital community.
You also co-founded Future/Proof Brands. What is the concept behind this company?
Future/Proof Brands is a collection of millennial founders and established industry veterans developing innovative beverage brands for the next generation of drinkers. The next generation has a new set of demands for consumer brands, while the alcohol industry has many nuances to it that can make it difficult to innovate. We believe we have a formula to deliver brands that delight consumers and industry trade partners alike.
Do you think the CPG ecosystem is more conducive to women founders and / or entrepreneurs of color (as opposed to other portions of the startup world)?
Coming from the tech world, I definitely see more women and founders of color in the CPG space. However, my own personal experiences as a woman and immigrant from the Middle East have shown me there is still major work to make sure our industry is inclusive. There are many times I have been mistaken for a promotional model when representing my company as an owner. I have also been asked which of my co-founders I am married to at an industry conference by the head of wine for a major national distributor. This is why I continue to sit on panels and show up at industry events: If I can change what an alcohol company executive looks like to our industry, I hope the next female founder won’t have my same experience. Look at all the women that have started alcohol beverage companies recently!
Is it easier for CPG startups to get funding, as compared to startups that have a little more focus on niche audiences?
It’s really hard to get funding at early stages, no matter what, but, depending on your requirements for production, it may be less expensive to get to a point to where you can show potential investors traction. For example, we started BeatBox with our savings and were able to get a product on shelves without raising money from outside parties. We were able to show our sales in stores and were raising money to grow rather than just raising money for an initial idea. Early on we also aligned with investors that had consumer brands in their portfolio that were marketing to a similar demographic or were similar operationally. It was less risky for them to invest in us, knowing there were immediate benefits to their other brands.
At the University of Texas, you received your M.B.A. in entrepreneurship. Did those courses and classes prepare you for the day-to-day startup grind?
The rigorous presentation and pitching practice we had to go through as part of the McCombs M.B.A experience definitely helped set up to be successful on Shark Tank… and then hundreds of investor pitches since!
As referenced earlier, Beatbox appeared on Shark Tank back in 2014 and received funding from Mark Cuban. What’s your advice to startups that are considering this route?
If you are in the interview process, please remember while you need to represent your company, it’s a TV show — make sure to give the producers great TV! Bring that high energy and passion for your company to every meeting with their team.
Was your appearance on Shark Tank a pivotal moment in your journey as an entrepreneur? Or do you think you would have followed the same trajectory even had you not been on the show?
Shark Tank gave us a huge head start in terms of brand awareness and credibility as a young startup. I am truly grateful for my experience with the TV Show and Mark Cuban. I will say, neither Shark Tank nor Mark Cuban saved me from the hard knocks of learning the alcohol beverage industry. Learning to deliver a business model that scales in alcohol is something we had to do ourselves. We almost went out of business three times before we finally found our model!
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also posts frequent interviews on Medium with innovators and thought-leaders from Austin, across the United States and around the world.