When Sun & Swell founder Kate Flynn’s raft was snagged on a rock, she heard the guide shout “be prepared for anything.” Founder of a high growth whole food and plant-based snacks company, Kate and her fellow raft-mates realized the raft might flip so they powered through the experience, dislodged the raft — and took the lesson of adaptability, resilience and teamwork back to their teams…realizing the power in being prepared for, literally, anything (as is often the case in high growth companies).
This story comes from a unique program developed and run by adVenturesAcademy, an organization co-founded by Alissa Sears and Luis Benitez, that brings together high growth founders with leading investors and proven advisors in the natural products and outdoor industries.
With the goal of deepening the engagement between entrepreneurs, investors, and the growth ecosystem surrounding game-changing companies, adVenturesAcademy provides hands-on adventure training programs to unleash innovation, develop meaningful, adversity-tested relationships between stakeholders, and cultivate key skills critical to success in building high growth, resilient enterprises.
Think epic business relationships and learnings heightened by the inherent parallels found in nature rooted in powerful experiences of the wild. Like doing avalanche training while exploring exit strategies.
Kate and 30 others traveled to Buena Vista, Colorado where investors, founders and advisors traded the “comfort” of conference rooms for meaningful conversations around an open fire, white water rafting, early morning yoga, delicious meals and GrowthCamp sessions led by investors and industry leaders. Entitled “Navigating the Rapids: Building Resilient, Adaptive Growth,” the program is one of several offered by adVenturesAcademy as the organization has continued to grow over the last seven years.
We caught up with Alissa, who in addition to co-founding adVenturesAcademy also serves as VP of Growth & Strategy for brand powerhouse Christie & Co, to talk about the adventure of alliance building in the natural food industry. The topic is important to GreenSeed. We believe “together” is a powerful way to bring food products to market and drive growth. Understanding others and having a shared mission leads to amazing opportunities one simply can’t create alone.
Alissa and Luis’ work building adVenturesAcademy echoes these principles. In a recent video, Luis talks about their founding of adVenturesAcademy: “The real question was: would it be worthwhile to bring together entrepreneurs and investors in an experiential setting to really try to understand how to get some of the noise out of the way when it came to having genuine conversations — when it came to really understanding the impact that you want to have on the world both from an investor and founder side. Over the last couple years, to explore what these journeys mean to participants has been truly incredible.”
The interview has been condensed and edited.
You are very passionate about collaboration. What does that look like in the natural food industry?
As with any industry sector that scales and mainstreams, the topography of the natural food industry has changed a great deal – and continues to do so at a rapid pace. It’s more critical than ever for manufacturers, retailers, trade associations, and consumers to come together and connect in a meaningful, transparent and authentic way. At both Christie & Co and adVenturesAcademy, we have focused on ecosystem-building to bring together values-aligned partners to support the growth of companies, help navigate and mitigate the pitfalls and inherent challenges, and support the overall growth of our industry as a whole. We believe and have seen time and again that through an ecosystem-focused approach to supporting high growth companies, founders are able to build more resilient growth that enable them to overcome the inherent challenges within the growth process with values-aligned expert resources who are there to support them every step of the way, learning how to catalyze growth, manage complex supply chains, build brands consumers love, and develop themselves as leaders.
People can be as passionate about brands as they are about sports teams. How does an aligned value chain deepen the consumer experience?
As our industry has continued to grow and mainstream, the consumer experience has similarly evolved. Once a matter of engaging and selling to the early adopters with a very much aligned values set and buying motivators, then growing into additional channels and demographics, today we are rapidly (and thankfully) reaching broader audiences, younger generations, leveraging innovative channels and distribution opportunities, navigating the immediacy of e-commerce and digital marketing, and aligning with much more diverse values structures and consumer behavior framework. This makes it imperative to have a deeply aligned value chain and build brands with the elasticity to be relevant to much more diverse audiences simultaneously. Understanding how to communicate a brand’s core values, value proposition and authenticity in a way that is relevant to broader audiences and deeply resonates is even more vital.
At Christie & Co for the last 26 years, our proprietary consumer research has continued to highlight that American consumers love to buy from people. They are moved by the stories at the hearts of brands – the people behind them and their purpose for existence. They want to see that personal touch carried through the value chain. They want it personal. They want it to matter. They want to matter. Their sense of identity has increasingly been intertwined with their purchasing power and the brands with which they align – and love. Cultivating that emotional connection and loyalty is more critical than ever in a sea of choices facing every single consumer. Especially when it becomes a representation of their own sense of identity.
Brand loyalty is built when it is rooted in a deep understanding of the consumer and enhanced through collaboration across the value chain. Among brokers, co-packers, co-manufacturers, retailers, and beyond, it is important to cultivate complete alignment to most effectively reach the consumer and create a cohesive and meaningful consumer experience.
Whenever a founder creates, there’s a story to be told. Doing it in a way that truly resonates with the target audiences is absolutely vital. Authenticity resounds when the brand architecture is developed rooted in a clear understanding of the consumer. Their desires. Their motivations. Their behavior. This needs to be understood throughout the value chain as brands are built, products are created, distributed, and sold … and companies are scaled. Every touchpoint should be aligned to maximize impact and brand equity.
Many companies in the natural food space started out to make the world a healthier, better place. Do you think this remains true today?
The natural industry has continued to scale in a truly remarkable way. As the industry has grown, it has attracted many more people throughout the ecosystem with dreams of making the world a better place just as much as it has attracted those who see it as a tremendous market opportunity. It’s not necessarily black and white – either make the world a better place or focus on profitability. To the contrary, we believe that you can do good and do well – and even enhance your success by aligning your core values with strong business acumen and proven teams who have done it before. It’s not only not mutually exclusive, but it actually enhances brand value(s) and the potential for success in rapidly changing terrain. I think the overwhelming sentiment of our industry is driven by a desire to help enhance health, improve sourcing and supply chain sustainability and regeneration, and ultimately use business as a force for good, which I think is very core to our industry. It’s not necessarily true for every single person in our industry, but I do think it’s the majority. Many of our clients are blown away by how everybody in the natural food industry helps each other and how strong the sense of community is.
Daily life sometimes seems rote; one call or meeting leads to the next. During adVenturesAcademy’s recent trip to Buena Vista, can you share a story about how meaningful conversation makes a difference?
The skies had unleashed a downpour that is common during Colorado’s monsoon season. Yet Zach DeAngelo, Founder of Rodeo Ventures, didn’t miss a beat as he continued to lead our session on “Growing Outside the Box,” discussing critical growth challenges, disruptive distribution opportunities, and creative solutions to help brands grow.
The weather seemed to mirror his discussion of growth challenges and his admirable persistence as he continued amidst the unrelenting storm. As we wrapped up and got back onto our rafts, the worst of the storm passed, and we continued to paddle and connect with everyone on our boats. The discussions as we paddled were raw, real and dynamic. It’s so powerful to experience that depth of connection so often lacking in boardrooms and conferences. Beyond the comfort zone where we really get to know people and understand how they respond to adversity as we endure and come through challenges and storms together. The relationships that are built through these experiences are long-lasting and truly profound.
How are CPGs leveraging alliances across the value chain?
What we’ve seen is that strategic alliances within the value chain among the different service providers help CPGs optimize success as well as navigate the growth process much more efficiently. Leveraging the depth of experience of aligned service providers helps to foresee and mitigate challenges and optimize growth. Things are changing so fast within the CPG world that founders and their teams often need expertise they haven’t previously accessed before. This can be a strategic advantage.
I’ve been on a lot of boards for companies at different stages that need the right industry insight rooted in proven experience in order to guide the growth process – including attracting potential investors. Numerous advantages come from alignment across the value chain and core team, it all comes back to having a community of people who have done it before, understand the goals, target audience, product focus, and growth strategy, and can help founders and teams overcome pitfalls otherwise seemingly insurmountable.
Truth or fiction: We all need people to help us on our journey — in business and personally.
Truth. Building high growth companies can often feel isolating. As soon as a founder realizes that they are not alone in the journey, it’s like everything opens up and the challenges within the growth process suddenly don’t seem quite so challenging.
What are three specific outcomes from building alliances?
First and foremost is knowledge sharing. What we’ve seen is that when you have strong, multi-faceted alliance throughout your value chain, you are able to listen, learn and leverage knowledge from people who have done it before and know how to navigate the rapids, so to speak. It’s like having a roadmap throughout the growth process.
Second, you build efficiency, a more rooted approach to growth. Understanding what works, what doesn’t, you leverage the best of the best to scale more efficiently.
Lastly, alliances in your value chain address fragmentation and how companies are built today. There’s more meaningful engagement because you have more people working together.
Any examples from your programs?
Much of alliance building is about navigating the pitfalls and finding resources that align with a company’s mission, values, operational needs, and growth strategy. It is essential to the growth process. You see this very clearly in the alliance building that happens specifically between founders and investors – an often vital part of growing great companies.
This process is often slow, fragmented and frequently painful for both the entrepreneur and the investor … one often feels like “lunchtime entertainment” while the other is just trying to discern who that person really is and if they are able to actually execute on the opportunity, overcoming the inherent pitfalls in the growth process they haven’t even realized are coming … see where the challenges come in? Real alliance building (and alignment building) requires openness, honesty and often a willingness to be vulnerable with each other. Not peacocking and trying to seem perfect which is too often the situation in early discussions between founders and investors.
We were in a back-country hut in Colorado a few years ago with a group of entrepreneurs, investors and advisors and dug deep into this. One of the entrepreneurs said how exhausting it was to always be “peacocking” — pretending like everything was perfect in their company to try and attract an investor when in reality they were dealing with several different manufacturing issues that they were hesitant to share. An investor responded and explained that they actually want to know about the challenges they’re facing and can probably help fix them given the insights they have into so many companies that have faced just about anything you can imagine at each stage of growth. Now that is alliance building AND alignment building. Seems pretty simple. But it took a few days of snowshoeing up to a hut at 11,000 feet, cooking together, exploring the various business lessons found through adventure — like doing avalanche drills and talking about exit strategy — and more to get to a place where we could be open and cut through the challenges faced on both sides. And connect at the human level to build lasting alliances.
What is a “Connectivity Circle” and why is true connection important to alliance building and business?
At adVenturesAcademy, we believe deeply in the power of real connection. It’s the heart and soul of why we do what we do. We developed our Connectivity Circle as an activity to frame each program and create a thread that weaves through the whole experience, connecting each participant.
At the beginning of the program, we gave each person a circle of aspen wood that we had collected locally and cut. We had each person write one word on their wood circle that represented their intention for the trip. They then carried their wood circle with them throughout the trip. As part of our closing ceremony, everyone laid out their wood circles together on the ground. We explained that one person would start and pick up a circle with the word written on it that represented what the trip had meant to them. How it had impacted them. The lessons and experiences that had resonated most. They would explain the meaning it held for them. Then the person who had written it on the first day would explain why they had written it that first morning, their intention for the trip and why it was important to them … connecting them both in a really powerful representation of our interconnectivity and the power that comes from meaningful relationships built beyond the comfort zone. This went on as each person selected a wood circle and realized the depth of their connections with one another – how directly they connected to another. As we went around the circle, the thread of connectivity wove our group together at an even deeper level. These wood circles represent our interconnectivity and the power we have when we come together, connecting deeply to build friendships, alliances and partnerships that last.
Speaking of connectivity and gratitude, I would love to thank the founders who attended our adVentures trip to Buena Vista: Marian Leitner-Waldman of Archer Roose Wines; Blake Johnson of Ax Water; David Brien of Cashmere Systems; Darcy Conover of Corbeaux; Ryan Lewis of EarthHero, Will Anderson of Explore Superfoods; Christopher Algea of Keen One Foods; Karen Waddell of Reveri and Init Foods; Pete Brennan of Sonar Foods; and Kate Flynn of Sun & Swell. I would also love to thank the investors and growth capital partners who joined us in Buena Vista: Melissa Baker of Fenwick Brands; Ben Fenton of Boulder Food Group; Gigi Lee Chang of BFY Capital; Josh Rombach of Sonoma Brands; Jay Hirsh of Break Trail Ventures; Joe Matta of Sunrise Strategic Partners; Zach DeAngelo of Rodeo Ventures; Nate Cooper of Barrel VC; Matt Stotts of Kano VC; Andrew Reynolds of RCV Partners; and Marshall Lebovits of Funding911. I am so grateful for our team and advisors who joined us in Buena Vista: Anne O’Connor of Metamorphix; Matt D’Amour and Linwood Paul of Subtle Distinctions; Chris Sword of PEARL iZUMi; Gillian Christie of Christie & Co; Lauren Ivison of Totem Leadership; Ryan O’Donoghue of First Descents; Eric Gricus of Amari Botanicals, and our team who came together to make it all possible. We are so grateful!