worked in corporate sales and marketing for a decade before taking her entrepreneurial plunge. When she did, she launched a natural hand-crafted baby food business in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Now, she’s brought that expertise to the Triangle, and throughout the past year, has worked to organize and connect the Triangle’s food entrepreneurs. Her initiative, the Triangle Food Makers
, runs in close conjunction with a robust ecosystem of support organizations for the Triangle’s food entrepreneurs, including the RDU Mobile Food Association, the Small Business Center at Durham Tech (host of this weekend's Triangle Small Food Business Conference) and North Carolina State University’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS).
Triangle Food Makers, which launched in August 2015, is a labor of love for Willett. She openly shares that the process of launching her food business led to a realization that her passion was not in it, but in advising new food-based entrepreneurs on marketing, positioning and growth strategies. After two-and-a-half years in the business, called Little City Kitchen Co., she turned to blogging, teaching, consulting and working in community development in California.
But since her move in 2014 to the Triangle, she's done it through Coaching For Cooks, her consultancy that provides marketing coaching for food entrepreneurs. Triangle Food Makers is a logical extension of this passion: bringing together the people that create, cook, produce and sell some of the Triangle’s most popular food items to connect, learn and share experiences with one another.
Willett delivered her fourth Triangle Food Maker event this week, bringing together a panel of investors and lenders to discuss financing options for food-based entrepreneurs, and giving four entrepreneurs who'd never pitched to investors a no-pressure opportunity to practice and learn from the experience.
Food entrepreneurs often don’t know where to start when thinking about financing their business, says Willett, and just thinking about financing and money is often an incredibly intimidating process for an entrepreneur whose expertise typically lies within a kitchen.
“There’s a level of financial knowledge that is needed,” she says, “and there don’t seem to be many support services that have direct experience with the food sector.”
Raising money to start a food truck, open a community cafe, or to launch a line of food products requires a different type of investor, says Willett. These folks tend to value a local food economy and understand the support they provide to local food-based businesses plays a vital role in establishing and celebrating that robust local economy. Furthermore, says Willett, those investors must be prepared for lower rates of returns while accepting fairly standard rates of failure or default. (Read more from this week's event here.
Willett’s events have brought together more than 400 people in the Triangle—including about 60 Wednesday night.
“Clearly we tapped into something that was really in need,” says Willett. “It’s so exciting to see the energy around the local food maker movement.”
The movement is about to grow, predicts Benji Jones, partner at Smith Anderson, and an expert in the NC PACES legislation that will enable NC-based companies to raise money from NC-based investors through crowdfunding efforts.
Jones, who spoke at Wednesday's investment event, believes that this legislation will benefit food entrepreneurs the most.
“I think food and beverage companies are ideal candidates for crowdfunding,” Jones told the crowd. According to Jones, the legislation was designed for companies to raise small amounts of capital from local investors, giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to raise money from the very people who buy their products.
This can, and likely will, create a virtuous cycle whereby those local investor-customers continue to be advocates for your business and your products, helping you grow the company by purchasing products and sharing your products with your friends, predicts Jones.
“NC PACES wasn’t designed for the technology entrepreneurs,” she said, “it’s designed for you, the food entrepreneurs.”
Financing through crowdfunding is just one of many options available to entrepreneurs, says Willett, and the purpose of the most recent Triangle Food Makers event was to demystify the conversations around investment, debt and equity financing.
“I remember as a food maker,” says Willett, “it’s a very lonely and isolating experience.”
By bridging the community and providing easy access to all kinds of resources, Willett hopes to enhance the entire ecosystem.
Her next step is to build a digital community to supplement the live events. That includes an email list serve and digest in the coming months, with the support of CEFS at NC State University.
“The more we can tap into collective wisdom and support, the better we all do,” says Willett, “and the stronger the local food economy becomes.”