PODCASTS / E55
NOVEMBER 1, 2021
The primary trade shows for early-stage consumer brands are hosted by a company called New Hope Media, a trade promotions/media company. As the name suggests, New Hope is infused with advocacy and missionary zeal; like a whole lot of change-the-world-ism. Given its origins in the 1990s, when organic anything was a truly unknown niche to most Americans, “hope” seems like it was a smart branding move.
And the sheer improbability of scaling anything organic back then correlated strongly with a need for truly missionary zeal. It is still around, this zeal to change America’s food and agricultural system from a subsidized corn and dairy shitshow to something based on real food sans a stew of chemical additives that all date from around 1930 onwards (over 10,000 additives get mixed into food and beverage items today folks).
That zeal was understandable in the early years, because the scale of impact in the first decades was tiny and, objectively, well, sad.
I mean, how the hell do you scale organic milk when there are virtually no large-scale, organic dairies or even dairies willing to convert their operations to your new standard with an uncertain market size? Well, you slog along converting them one by one like Horizon did.
Today, though, misplaced missionary zeal to change the world with your CPG brand can get in the way of professionalizing yourself quickly enough to get to scale in a much more competitive market for premium goods than 1991.
Today, you need to professionalize quickly into a serious competitor as compartmentalize the mission, channel it largely as a personal motivator. Or, honestly, you may steer off-course or simply get knocked aside by smarter competitors who have copied your mission, even the supply-chain it’s based on, purely to take your idea to scale without you.
OK, that’s a bit dramatic. How did I get there, logically? How does zeal get in the way of Riding the Ramp? Well, here’s some background.
In graduate school, I developed an accidental expertise in missionary psychology. I acquired it at an archive at Harvard. I spent two months reading over two thousand private letters from American missionaries operating large school systems in colonial India. I was hunting for nuggets of social history to connect to my 18 months of anthropological fieldwork in a specific town.
In the two months I spent pouring over missionary correspondence, I realized there were tons of parallels between the ups and downs and administrative B.S. in colonial mission schools and basically any mission-driven organization. As I read them, I realized there were plenty of missionaries who simply did not belong abroad, because they just didn’t have what it takes to execute, to slog through the process of setting up cultural institutions in a foreign cultural world. They didn’t even like people, per se. Sounds odd, but I found them in the archives. Grade A misanthropes doing essentially a foreign office job they had come to clearly detest. Cultural difference is real, and, if you can’t show empathy and adapt, living abroad becomes a torture chamber. These folks should have stayed home and written a check instead.
At lunch each day during my archival spelunking, I constantly danced between these colonial letters and conversations I’d had with anthropologist peers in NGO and development work: modern, secular missionaries. They were in my doctoral program at Wisconsin-Madison in the mid-1990s. One was a Peace Corps veteran who had worked in Guinea in West Africa. She really enjoyed the work, like the messy, gritty, ambiguous work of executing development programs. She absolutely loved the people and culture and basically wanted to live there.
There are two primary kinds of missionary in the world. And mission-driven founders have to decide which one they want to be.
1. the one who loves working day in and day out with people to address their needs – think Mother Theresa
2. or the one who simply wants to race toward an objective by any legal means possible with minimal regard for the people they serve
At times, the same person can flip flop between these two very, very different frames of mind: goal-oriented and process-oriented. This is nothing new to organizational psychologists, but what causes problems for CPG founders who are mission-driven is that the goal, the mission clouds their judgment as they deliver goods to consumers. They easily spend too much time doing PR interviews about the mission and too little time listening to their early fans (and haters), iterating, working to optimize what they have and otherwise operating the business well.
They ruminate too much on the goal and avoid improving the process of reaching it.
In an odd way, mission-driven founders can easily become much like the crass stereotype of the Fortune 100 CEO who behaves as if the consumer is a lagging variable in their success, something to be manipulated into compliance.
Early-stage companies founded on missionary zeal don’t need to abandon their missions….but they do need to flip the script and learn to delay their gratification.
They need to focus on serving consumers in their categories until they achieve scale. That’s when they can start focusing more on the mission. Besides, at that point, the scale of the profits and/or unit volume will form a much more impressive story.