May’s Creative Somerville Series brought us a fantastic speaker–Colin Davis, founder of local foods-based subscription service Something GUD and Redemption Fish Co., an aquaponic fish and vegetable farm. The night also brought a new feature to our series: Dinner vending by The Community Canteen who seemed to inspire culinary happiness and satisfaction with their silver bowls.
After telling the crowd a little bit about the distribution of profit in the food industry (very little of it currently goes to farmers,) Davis went on to Something GUD’s approach: To cut out the middleman, just like a CSA (community supported agriculture) but with more curation and variety, tailoring to customer’s desires.
Davis, who once rode a bike across the country meeting with sustainability entrepreneurs, just say “I just rode a bicycle 4000 miles and hope that you’ll speak with me for an hour,” he advises, took us back to the series of jobs and ventures that led to him starting his current ventures.
Davis started out as a sustainability consultant. While he enjoyed the subject (he is passionate about, if not obsessed with sustainability and efficiency) he soon found himself frustrated with his role in the larger process of change. He was tired of clients looking over his sustainability recommendations and only choosing the solar panels (which had the least impact on energy efficiency) because of their marketing cache. Being an employee also just wasn’t Davis’ style; He jokes that he wanted to wear flip flops to work.
Startup 1: kWhOURS
In search of a career with more flip flops (and meaning,) Davis struck out and founded kWhOURS, a service that would bring automation to energy audits. “Being unemployable you have no choice but to try startups,” he says. Davis soon found himself traipsing around Silicon Valley raising money. The venture raised a serious budget, but there were a number of issues with the project, including that it was slightly before its time–it’s hard to remember ye old days before iPads and smartphones capable of running complex programs–but they existed and the software game changed after their introduction. Davis realized they needed to shut the company down.
kWhOURS did teach him how important testing ideas in the market was, and using lean methods of product development. He told the audience with conviction to familiarize themselves with “lean,” eg. The Lean Startup and its philosophy of market testing through minimum viable products.
After ramping down kWhOURS, Davis knew a few things: He wanted to work on issues of sustainability but he wanted to do something that had a much more direct relationship with customers, and with basic issues: Food was the perfect candidate. He also was tired of raising money, and started Something GUD with his own money and money pulled together from friends and family.
The company started with a small number of passionate fans that allowed Davis and his team to experiment. These were customers who were understanding when the company got it wrong, and then tweaked and pivoted the business model. One of their pivots? They originally hoped to meet all the food needs of their customers through a meal-based format (similar to companies like Blue Apron) but that was too complex of an order and they scaled back.
Colin says that the experience of running a bootstrapped company helped him understand more deeply why people make the short-term choice (such as buying less energy efficient equipment) even when they’ll pay for it in the long term–for people starting and running businesses money is tight today, not tomorrow.
Scale and Size
Davis spoke about his team with respect and gratitude. He says,”on paper I’m the CEO but in reality I just fetch resources.” His challenge is to be able to rise above the daily commotion and the issues that have to be attended to right now and to make more time to work on the issues that push the company forward proactively. (We were speaking with him the day after a red-eye, by the way.)
Top on his list is to grow his customer base. If Something GUD achieves this, they will be able to get to a scale where they can support local farmers more consistently, which supports both the farmers, efficiency goals, and Something GUD’s bottom line: “We can buy the whole cow every time” he says. With greater scale, Something GUD could create assured demand for their vendors (a farmer’s best friend) and even put in orders that farmers can plant and raise to.
And Davis does think there’s room to grow. While there are a number of companies like his in town, and CSA subscribers, he doesn’t see that market as his target, necessarily. The customers he wants to take are Whole Foods’ who he credits with reintroducing the idea that food quality is worth paying for.
Yet Davis hopes to scale Something GUD carefully and ethically. He cites examples of much larger companies that operate like his, who work with farmers in rural areas. If they fail or switch their sourcing, they could wipe out small farmer economies in those areas, and they might never return. So the plan is to grow in a way that recognizes the power his company has in the ecosystem of small businesses that he’s trying to support.
Company & Community
Davis also talked about his approach to equity in the company which is much less tightfisted than entrepreneurs are usually advised to be, “I gave out equity like Pez”, he jokes. Giving out equity (with measures in place to make sure recipients are committed and stick around for a while–he made sure to tell the audience,) helped him grow his company without venture capital, and also meant that those who chose to work with him were really committed to the company and the idea. “The only people who show up are either crazy and desperate or really love what they’re doing,” he says.
Something GUD is based out of the Aeronaut Foods Hub, where the Creative Somerville Series takes place. Being in the Foods Hub, and in Somerville has helped Something GUD grow by word of mouth, as people walk past their counter, beer in hand. “I’ve gotten to tell our story thousands of times,” Davis says.
Something GUD has also benefited from, and paid it forward in the small business network in Somerville. At one point, Davis relayed a story of how he had been at a talk with Ben Holmes, one of the founders of Aeronaut. Holmes (who was standing next to our Creative Somerville stage at that very moment–how very meta) told Davis he was starting a brewery. Davis told him, well, he was going to start a business too. So when Aeronaut found their warehouse, Davis was one of the first tenants to settle in the Foods Hub, which now hosts multiple small businesses.
More are opening soon, and they help to build out that ecosystem of local, independent business relationships that Something GUD relies on–“We can source some of our greens from thirty feet that way,” he says pointing towards the corner of the Foods Hub.
photo credits: Somerville Beat.
The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.