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A mentor’s perspective: the importance of startups joining an incubator programme

One of the biggest advantages of our Incubator programme is the range of experts that we have as mentors. These mentors have supported startups in growing, scaling, and attracting investors. So we decided to ask them about the importance of startups joining an incubator programme. Let’s see what they had to say. 

At the ProVeg Incubator, we work with more than 75 expert mentors who support the startups. These mentors provide assistance in a variety of areas, including technical, food regulations, management, and marketing. Also supporting our startups with individual mentoring, workshops, fireside chats, and sharing industry knowledge and advice.  We spoke to four of our mentors: David Benzaquen, Gary Brenner, Frank Cordesmeyer, and Fabio Ziemssen.

  • David Benzaquen is an investor and startup advisor and is also one of the world’s leading experts in the plant-based food sector. David has founded several companies, including the plant-based seafood company Ocean Hugger Foods and the consulting business Mission: Plant LLC.
  • Gary Brenner is a specialist in business development and is the Founder of Brenner Pharma/Food Business Development Ltd, based in Israel.
  • Frank Cordesmeyer is an expert in R&D, business development, and food science, with a particular focus on the development of alternative protein sources.
  • Fabio Ziemssen is the Founder and CEO of NX-Food, with more than 15 years’ experience in the food sector. 

David Benzaquen holding a Fireside Chat on positioning your startup in the market

Why should a startup consider joining an incubator programme? 

Frank Cordesmeyer: An incubator programme provides startups with access to various benefits, such as exposure to industry leaders, networking opportunities, mentorships, and access to funding. Most incubators have a unique selling point. However, they also usually have a similar aim. To provide founders with the necessary resources and skills needed for fast and effective growth.

Fabio Ziemssen: Incubator programmes have several advantages. The ones that I consider most valuable are mentorship, peer-to-peer learning from other startups, a structured environment and curriculum, and access to a great network. 

David Benzaquen: Joining an accelerator or incubator is an invaluable tool for an early-stage food company, in many senses – but mostly to connect with like-minded entrepreneurs, learn from industry experts, and meet with aligned investors who will support your journey.

Gary Brenner: When you meet up with startups, you’ll find very, very intelligent people with very interesting and groundbreaking ideas or concepts. However, the process of creating their products (specifically in food technology) is tricky. Many of those entrepreneurs haven’t taken into consideration several key success factors for turning the idea into a real business. These key factors can be on several levels. For instance, regulatory or safety issues regarding ingredients, technological production issues, or how to make products for a global market.  

Also, at the end of the day, your product has to be palatable and it can’t be too expensive. Incubators should support founders to hit these important benchmarks. Why? To help to ensure that the startups don’t face major barriers when they take their products to market.

Finally, incubators also play a big role in supporting startups with their management skills. Not every entrepreneur has the skills to turn their inventions into a business and incubators should be supporting this process.

What are the main areas in which a startup can benefit from an incubator programme?

Frank Cordesmeyer: In my opinion, there are three areas in which startups  benefit most from incubator programmes: 

Providing structure in order to maintain a business focus: when you arrive at an incubator, the infrastructure you need to run your business is already in place. This will allow your startup to focus solely on the core business needs! Without spending time on other technical parts of the business.

Mentorship: by working with a mentor, your startup will gain practical advice, encouragement, support, and the ability to receive critical advice.  

Network: in an incubator, your startup will have the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with potential strategic partners, venture capitalists, and like-minded entrepreneurs. 

Fabio Ziemssen: Essentially, all areas of a startup will benefit from an incubator programme. I would emphasise the administrative responsibilities, which are normally covered by incubators, which gives the startups more time for development. 

Also, the expertise and network that an incubator provides. By joining an incubator, you’ll be building connections with venture capitalists, which is essential. But also gaining expertise in product development, and acquiring know-how about company building. 

David Benzaquen: In my opinion, the biggest benefit of joining an accelerator is sharpening how the startup presents their product or company to the external parties who are essential to your success. This includes investors, of course, but also buyers, consumers, distributors, manufacturing partners, and others.

Fabio Ziemssen at the demoday in Berlin.

Is there an optimum time for a startup to join an incubator programme?  

Frank Cordesmeyer: There is no exact rule on whether to join at an early or advanced stage – it depends on the industry, the product, and the founders. 

There are several advantages of joining at an early stage. The main one is that the founders get specific support that enables them to increase their ability to successfully raise capital and grow fast.

If you are a late-stage startup, it is important to evaluate your reasons for joining a specific incubator. At this point, you have probably already passed the development stage. Certain incubator programmes may be able to support you in developing strategic partnerships, which can expand your market reach.

Fabio Ziemssen: A startup can most benefit from an incubator programme in the early stages for several reasons. Firstly, the early stages are typically the time when operations need to be set up. Secondly, an incubator programme can optimally support early-stage startups by providing administrative and management support. Lastly, the networking opportunities and peer-to-peer learning can be especially helpful for an early stage startup. 

David Benzaquen: Given the time commitment and financial model, incubator programmes are most beneficial for startups at a very early stage!

Did you enjoy this blog post? Then take a look at our content about positioning, with the best insights from David Benzaquen. 

Positioning your startup on the marketplace: highlights from David Benzaquen

Investor, advisor, and founder David Benzaquen recently hosted a fireside chat as part of the current edition of our accelerator programme. His focus? Positioning a company in the marketplace and the crucial role this plays in a startup’s success. Read on for some highlights from David’s discussion with our startups.

David Benzaquen is one of the world’s leading experts in the plant-based food sector. In his work as an investor and advisor, he has supported more than 150 companies, including plant-based-bacon manufacturer Hooray foods, the dairy-alternative company  CHKP, and ProVeg Incubator alumnus Plantcraft.

David has also founded several companies, such as the plant-based seafood company Ocean Hugger Foods and the consulting business Mission: Plant LLC. He is also one of the mentors we work with at the ProVeg Incubator.

David has built up a wealth of experience in strategies for company positioning when entering the North American market and has built a strong network with food accelerators, incubators (such as us), and venture capitalists. 

Throughout our fireside chat, David explained the core points of positioning, provided examples, and asked valuable and thought-provoking questions about the topic. Knowing how to position your startup is essential to your success and it requires you to follow several steps. So let’s get started with the basics. 

What is positioning? 

“Positioning is establishing who you are and where you fit in the market”, says David. “It is understanding how to create a space for yourself in the market”. 

In order to understand your place in the market you will need to do your research. This  requires you to understand not only your customers, but also your competitors and your suppliers. This is so essential because it shapes every decision for your company throughout your journey.

When you define your positioning, you also define who your consumers are –  and not merely vague demographics, but where they buy, how much money they are spending or willing to spend, what things they like, their routine, and so on. 

Why are these points relevant to your positioning? By knowing how much money your consumers spend, you can define your price. And by understanding where they shop, you can determine where you will sell. The examples are endless, as the value of positioning affects every decision one makes.

Bearing in mind that  these customers do not know your product and will already have their existing preferences, how does a new product differentiate itself in the market and stand out? David answers this question with a better question: what is it about your product or service that is going to be more valuable to your customers than the things that they are used to spending their money and attention on? 

The importance of making choices

Ask yourself this question: what problem are you solving that is also a problem for other people? 

Unfortunately, you cannot embrace the whole world and all the possible causes in it. Nor should you want to. “Your product is not going to stand for everything or everyone”, says David, “you must make choices”. By narrowing down your options, you will be able to develop a product that is tailored to your target audience and which they actually want. The choices you make are all to do with your positioning, which is also a matter of communicating what you stand for.

“Don’t be fooled”, says David. “It is not merely your product that communicates what you stand for. The cause that you are fighting for needs to be clear to your audience in terms of your brand, your image, and everything you say, do, and present to the world as a business”.

Brand and communication

Positioning is part of your brand and your brand is what your company represents, what you communicate to your audience. But how do you communicate your message through your brand?.

Externally, your brand consists of your logo, name, and reputation, but the tricky part is realising that brand is much more than what you show to your customers.

Internally, your brand is your mission, vision, values, personality, what you represent, and, of course, your positioning in the market. Much as these are well-known concepts to entrepreneurs, David reinforces their importance in terms of consolidating your brand and transmitting what your company stands for in terms of customer perception. 

Incubator alumni startup Pink Albatross recently rebranded their plant-based ice cream

Point of difference

The things that make your company different, your unique selling points (USPs), are key to determining  your position in the market. If you need help in working out what your USPs are, start by asking yourself these questions:

What makes your company better than the competitors?

Do you have anything that is completely unique to you and your business??

What makes your company more valuable for your customers? 

“Does having a delicious product constitute a point of difference?” you may ask. According to David, being delicious is great but not a strong point of differentiation! Startups should be aware of the fact that they are not going to automatically be embraced by the world.

“You won’t be the most sustainable, healthiest, and cheapest product! Even if you are for a while, it won’t last long” says David. You also need to make choices when it comes to your point of difference. 

Did you like this blog post? This is one example of the kinds of training startups receive when participating in our programme at ProVeg Incubator. The call for entries for our next cohort is now open. Don’t miss this opportunity – apply here!

Becoming a brand, not just a product

Claire Barrett is Strategy Director for Hunger Craft, the specialist brand strategy and packaging agency for all things edible. Hunger has worked extensively in the plant-based sector and the company directors are mentors for the ProVeg Incubator, coaching our startups in building the right brands for their businesses. In this blog, Claire shares her brand strategy 101 tips.

A brand is a promise made and kept

For over ten years now my job role has included the words ‘Brand’ and ‘Strategist’. Both terms tend to cause confusion outside of marketing circles. It’s totally understandable. At the best of times, the words are pretty nebulous and can be subject to many different interpretations, so let’s kick off with a common definition: 

A brand is a promise made and kept. 

The promise is made by your visual and verbal communications and it’s kept by your people, product, service, and reputation. Put simply, Brand Strategy is the tool you use to define your promise and how to keep it. 

In a company or startup, you may be lucky enough to employ a brand manager or head of brand. Alternatively developing your brand may be one of the many plates you spin as an entrepreneur. Either way, no matter how big or small your company is, it’s important that everyone holds an intimate understanding of your brand because it’s more than just a logo and a colour palette. It’s your vision, what you stand for, how you behave, what you look, sound, feel, taste, smell like, it’s your business’s very soul.

Defining your brand from day one helps on every level, whether that’s: employing the right people and creating the right culture internally; securing pitches with customers and sales with consumers; ensuring every partner ‘gets’ you so every piece of communication nails it; informing future NPD and diversification; and, of course, creating consistency across how you look, how you speak and what you say.

Incubator alumni startup Vly Foods recently rebranded their alternative milk products

Why brand matters

Firstly, brands communicate. Fast.

Okay, I’m not going to summarise Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman here, but trust me  – go read it. It explains how our brain operates using two systems, with the majority of our choices being made by the instinctive, intuitive, ‘auto-pilot’ system: System 1. To make these quick calls, the brain rapidly decodes information based on years of information. It’s main source of information? Visuals. We’re wired to decode visuals at a far greater pace than words. In System 1 90% of the information our brain uses to make its decisions is visual. If your product will find itself on shelves, consumers’ 3-5 decision-making seconds rely on System 1, relying on your brand to speak volumes. 

Secondly, it sells the vision 

There will obviously be a lot of people spending more careful, conscious time considering your offering. Getting your brand and messaging crystal clear upfront sells the vision to potential investors deliberating whether to buy in and sells the opportunity to potential customers deciding whether to stock it. It makes for a stronger, more memorable and ultimately more successful conversation.

And talking about first impressions, brands set expectations

In an ideal world, your product would speak for itself, but in reality, your product is mute until it gets in front of people’s eyes or into their hands, baskets, and mouths. From deciding to hover over an Instagram ad and swipe up or deciding to pause at a shelf, your visual and verbal brand will make the first impression. And when it does, it’s crucial it promises all the right things. That way brand expectation s and brand experience align.

Finally, good brands win space, trust, and fame 

There is a surplus of brands, and noise, in the world. Good brands cut through based on the real value they create for the consumer. Whether that’s a better night’s sleep and a clearer head thanks to lack of choice (Casper), an entertaining respite from the day (Recess) or a ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-wrapper’ transparency (RX bars), if your brand is promising something that is of value to your audience, and delivering that promise through every brand interaction and touchpoint, you will build trust, fame and reach the holy grail of marketing: word of mouth recommendations.

Hunger Craft has worked with brands like the plant-based Abbot’s Butcher

Where to begin with your brand

So, where to start. Well, to define the foundations of your brand, dig deep into three crucial areas: 

  1. Know your audience

Who is your audience? What role do you perform in their lives? Can you identify what tension you are resolving? What need are you answering? Which brands outside the category are already winning with them and why? Knowing your audience means you can be bolder with your brand. For example, Nuggs is appealing to a very clear audience so it can take the ‘make friends, make enemies’ attitude with a strong, polarising personality; it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea/plant-based chicken nugget and that’s just fine. 

  1. Know your category

When it comes to the category, look near, far and further. Near at competitors: Pinpoint the space you want to own in the category. Market maps or a competitor attribute matrix are two of the simplest and most useful ways to do this. Far at adjacent categories: what inspirational case studies or codes can you find in related categories such as other ‘free from’ products? Further at consumers’ wider brand worlds: through its simplistic branding and bold colour choice, Impossible borrowed the already ingrained visual language of tech to position itself as the future of food. 

Melt ice cream offers ‘sweet relief’, all of their communications are chilled and mellow

  1. Know yourself

You know how people say you have to love yourself before other people will love you? Well, that’s true in branding, not just romcoms. You need to pinpoint what makes you special and own it. That means asking yourself the deep questions, the uncomfortable questions: What are you fighting against? What do you stand for? Why should people care? What’s your personality? A brand is a promise made and kept so, put simply, you need to know what you’re promising. If you’re promising to ‘Banish the Bland’ like Rub ‘a’ Dub spice mixes, make every touchpoint vibrant and vivacious. If you’re promising some ‘Sweet Relief’ like Melt CBD ice cream, make all your communications chilled and mellow.

Claire has over ten years of experience building brands across the world, working on everything from global rebrands for Coca-Cola to entrepreneurial startups like Abbot’s Butcher. Claire’s forté is carving out compelling spaces for brands using consumer insight, category intelligence, and brand truths. ProVeg Incubator works together with Hunger Craft to help startups build the right brands for their businesses, as part of its accelerator programme. Interested startups can apply online here

Does the perfect startup team exist?

“The team is possibly the most important element of a startup”. In this blog, we speak to ProVeg Incubator Mentor Nick Willer about finding the right founding team for a startup. 

Nick is the founder and owner of ACT – Advanced Coaching and Training – a Network of over 600 coaches, trainers, and consultants in Berlin. He is the chairman of the Bundeskommission für Startups und Unternehmensgründungen of the BVMW, Germany’s largest SME-Association. Nick loves coaching and consulting startups and other companies that want to make a change in the world. 

Why is the team such an important element of a startup?

“The team is maybe even the most important element. In the end, everything is based upon the people who are running a project. How they fit together regarding their skills and personalities is absolutely crucial for the success of a startup. Unfortunately, the best idea in the world is not worth very much if you don’t have the right people to execute it. 

“Money is always a big point as well, but it can be a trap at the same time. If you start with a lot of funding, but the team does not fit well together, it is possible that you will find this out too late. Money can cover up insufficiencies in the team for some time. I personally do not know any decent investor, who does not look very thoroughly at the team before investing.”

What does the perfect startup team look like to you?

“The personalities have to fit together. This does not mean that founders should be identical, it’s good to have different characters, skills, and personalities on the team. However, they should complement one another. Even some conflicts or differences of opinion can be positive. Too much harmony can be a false friend because it can lull you into addressing potential problems (which will happen) too late. 

“On the other hand, deep respect and appreciation for one another is the basis of being able to solve issues effectively. If those elements are missing, conflicts can escalate and endanger the whole project, instead of speeding it up and sharpening it, as they should. 

“The Share Structure is another important point here. How a team is organised should be recognised as fair when considering the value of each person’s input. Contributions include ideas and inventions, time, and money. 

“You should not only think about the here and now but consider the future as well. How does your Share Structure fit, if your company makes a million or more a year? is a question you will hear very often in my coachings. 

“You have to make sure that the input of each team member is recognised fairly and grows with the size and demands of the company. Vesting-models can be a good option if you are not sure about the future output and development of each team member. 

“Last but absolutely not least: What are the motivations of each team member? Do they fit together and is there a common goal uniting the team? Motivation is what will carry you through the tricky times, so make sure this is synchronised and strong enough to do so.”

Co-founders of Pläin, Michael Sysoev, Julia Deuter, and Jonathan Herrmann

What should entrepreneurs look for in a co-founder?

“Keep in mind the recommendations above and remember that at this point you have the choice about who to work with. 

“Good questions to ask yourself are: What is really missing in my team now and what will be required in the long term? People are often a little short-sighted when they are extremely involved with a project or situation, for example when identifying gaps in an existing team. 

“Take away the pressure. Ask yourself how the person you are considering for a role will work with you and the growing demands of your company in the long term. If you are sure it all fits, then make a fair deal. The shares you give out should fit with what you get in return from a co-founder.

“Good expectation management is crucial at this point as well. Is the potential co-founder happy with the deal you are offering and will they continue to be happy with it in the future? Are his or her expectations about the coming work and the development of the company realistic? If not, you might encounter problems further down the road.”

What are the three top tips you would give startup teams to help them work well together?

“Always focus on the value everybody has to the team. This will keep up the respect and appreciation when you have problems.

“Make sure that everybody is 100% aligned to the goal and that you are all fighting for the same cause.

“Be fair and open with one another regarding company shares and duties. Be flexible enough to change everything, if your original deal doesn’t fit anymore.”