Ep. 114 – The Death Funnel is Even Deadlier


March 15, 2024


A lot of entrepreneurs think they have the next Big Thing. I get it. You kind of have to believe this just t push through the fire hose of “NOs” and “that won’t work.” Seriously. 70 to 80% of early-stage brands in food and beverage never even get to $500,000 in sales. Whoa. As you sit back and contemplate that number, it seems awfully small, doesn’t it? 


The reality is that most folks who don’t make it to $500,000 in net sales, aside from the folks who decided that $100,000 is all they ever wanted, those folks generally make unforced errors. The most common is not raising enough seed monies to cover the first 2-3 production runs and the first 120 days of operations before distributors tend to pay you. An inability to forecast your early cash burn is a close second. Gary Hirshberg would like to scream “cash burn” into your ears until they bleed and you finally relent. 


I can’t list all the many reasons why you could kill your own business in that first $500,000 of trailing sales. And it would be a very depressing list, to begin with. But the most unforgivable one is trying to grow too damn fast. This was a viral brain disease during the 2010s like nothing I’ve ever seen. It inspired a data science experiment you can find in my book – Ramping Your Brand-, an experiment in which we buried this distribution-alone strategy into a muddy grave. Luckily, the foolish venture capital that funded all this is basically gone forever. Never again will Wall Street give $1M companies $25M to play with. 


Even the distribution-alone strategy has problems in 2024. The pandemic permanently raised baseline sales of market-leading brands. This means that shelf slots are permanently reduced for new brands approaching retail buyers. Getting on the shelf is harder than ever, especially at large chains. This means there is a higher burden to generating early growth at less optimal, lower foot traffic stores you can now most easily get into.


The desire to accelerate faster than your operations and balance sheet are ready to handle is understandable if you spent 1-3 years trying to develop your initial product. The impatience is real. And dangerous if you are really quite innovative, like siggi’s was, and have no clue how to position the business properly in a foreign market. 


There’s two basic ways you can grow a business in consumer packaged goods. You can use what’s called the push strategy, which is honestly the mainstay of large publicly-traded companies. Push is expensive. It requires highly mainstream offerings that basically aren’t innovative at all. Think Devour frozen meals. A large calorie portion size in a category replete with mostly low calories options.  It requires a sales organization capable of reaching 80-90% ACV category ACV in 6-9 months to work. That’s just one of the requirements you can’t meet. 


Contrary to what many confused venture capitalists preach, even well-funded startups cannot really pull off the kind of push strategy that folks at Frito-Lay do almost every single year. Not with a brand-new trademark. Not with their under-resourced organization. Now, even if you have 10 to 20 million dollars in investor capital, super unlikely you’ll ever get that, but even if you do have it, you still don’t have the resources that a large firm like Frito-Lay has with its B2C trucking fleet, its massive analytical resources and its decades of institutional experience in launching products super fast to a mass audience. But here’s the stickler. 80% of the time, this mega-resourced push strategy doesn’t work. Not because they don’t hit initial revenue targets in Y1, but because the sales volume doesn’t last. If you’re a large company, you could afford to string those launches together, and you may still, magically, grow the EPS. There is a cynical alchemy to this BigCo push approach.


But this model is unavailable to you as an entrepreneur. Believing that this or that investment firm can simply fund a magical push up the ramp is incredibly naive and usually results in a sub-par private equity exit. You might get rich, but you sabotaged the business’ long-term potential. Sounds like Wall Street. 


So what’s the other way? The other way to grow is what they call the pull model. The pull model is about designing and marketing so frickin’ cool that it causes consumers to pull it off the shelf, tell their friends, pull more off the shelf, etc.? A pull growth strategy is a business driven by month-over-month same-store velocity gains, the single toughest KPI to which you can ever hold your team. 


In the industry and in the marketing world, we call this organic growth (it didn’t use operator-forced techniques like price increases of distribution builds). Now, in the natural, organic industry, this phrase “organic growth”  is a nice little pun. 


Organic growth is created by more and more consumers trying a product and more of the consumers becoming repeat purchasers. And I tell you, strategizing and managing a business driven by organic growth, driven by pull, is the smartest thing that anybody can do with a small business, using their own precious money, which most of you are doing. This is because it forces you to maximize repeat purchases in specific channels and geographies. And this is financially efficient for distribution purposes. Getting more and more revenue out of existing points of distribution is one of your best, and very possible, weapons to steal market share from lazy incumbent brands. 


So how does this all really pan out if you do it well? What are the principles? Well, first of all, you add your accounts very slowly and strategically based on where you think the shopper base is going to be highly predisposed to the innovation you’re bringing to market. That also could be highly localized and regionalized assessment of the shopper base, even in a national chain. Target in Ohio is a different set of Target shoppers than Target in Southern California.


 After you’ve added stores strategically and slowly, not thousands at a time, you build a fan base as you’re doing this, so you can learn about your product. When I hear a lot of founders speak, it’s clear that they understand everything about their product as a manufactured widget because they’ve often spent one to three years fussing over it. And of course,  they’re sick and tired of fussing over it and want to make money. That’s the temptation. The seed money is draining away. But until you’ve had sustained interactions with hundreds and hundreds of consumers, including your fans, you have no clue what you really have. You just have a hypothesis about why you’re going to grow. 


But is your hypothesis correct? NASA doesn’t send the satellite up hoping it’ll work, not when a launch costs $100M. They test every component dozens and dozens of times in conditions similar to space. This costs billions that you definitely don’t have.


It’s just cheaper to use a pull strategy by building an initial fan base and learning from them in a contained geography or region. Hold your store count after getting it up to a couple hundred for a year or more. Measure your same-store growth. Feed the brand with out-of-store sampling and in-store displays. Are you growing steadily at the same stores for 12 to 24 months? If you’re not, you seriously need to think about tweaking your product or your market playbook. Don’t add any more stores until you figure that out. 


Now, how long are you really going to grow in the same stores? Well, this is, unfortunately, not a predictive science, at least not yet. Even though there’s no hard and fast rule, I can tell you that in multiple years, the velocity of growth at the same stores is very common for well-designed and positioned premium brands. Now, it may not be explosive growth, it’s often steady and geometric, so you and the buyer might not see the long-term magic unfolding. But the key is that as you’re adding stores, you don’t want the incline of your velocity growth slope to be declining or flattening out because that’s a sign that your new stores are simply not adding efficiency to the business. Declining is the real red flag. Flat velocities in the second year are not great, but not fatal. 


So add stores when you’re confident in velocity growth where you already are and confident that that growth is actually healthy. And you know why you are growing and how your executional mix, your playbook is helping. 


Then, start ramping distribution. It’s my firm belief that, in 2024, if you are a snack or beverage company or in any category where your units are emptied in 1-3 usage occasions, you should be able to create at least $1-3M business in a large U.S. metro. If you can’t, there’s something suboptimal, usually with your product design. 


By the way, this velocity-based pull strategy is not only a smart system for navigating the death funnel. It’s a smart system for any stage in the revenue growth curve of an early-stage company. It’s just that everything I just described is massively more critical to survival in the first $500,000 than it is for a 10 and 20-million-dollar early-stage company.


Be safe out there.