Michelle Breyer is a Chief Operating Officer at SKU’s accelerator program as well as one of the original founders of NaturallyCurly.com – a leading resource for the natural and textured hair community!
To quote Breyer’s LinkedIn: “Don’t tell me something can’t be done. Let’s work to make it a reality.” We love it!!
Her advice for small-biz CPG owners? See a need in the market – fill it! Stay flexible as your ability to pivot is a HUGE advantage that you have over big-guy Coca-Cola.
There are many more tips where that came from! This episode is loaded with industry experience and insights for accelerating your brand’s growth.
[0:44] Introduction. Meet Michelle Breyer of SKU’s accelerator program.
[1:27] Michelle’s background and start in journalism. She never expected to become a founder.
[2:03] What’s a founder story that’s stuck with you? John Mackey and Whole Foods. Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines.
[4:00] UMAI and fond memories of CPG conventions, like Expo West.
[4:53] What drew you to Austin? She moved to San Antonio first and fell in love with the town and people!
[6:14] Tell us about Naturally Curly. A hobby turned into a magazine. The importances of seeing a need and fulfilling it. People want brands with a story. Join the trends, but offer something unique!
[9:32] Where’s Naturally Curly now? Still operating +20 years later. It has passed hands, but they will connect when Breyer’s advice is needed.
[11:46] Note on Dove’s curly hair care line. A beautiful campaign with real women. But, the actual product line was just a miss. An example of misspent money and a lack of research. You can’t market yourself out of a bad product.
[14:28] What has your team done to maintain that community over a 22-year span? From an SEO perspective, Naturally Curly is always ranking. Content is evergreen education that is always helpful.
[15:37] What led you to SKU’s accelerator program? She sold Naturally Curly in 2018 and started mentoring others as a category expert in beauty. In 2019, she was offered a full-time mentorship position with SKU (current title: Chief Operating Officer at SKU). There’s an upcoming collaboration with Naturally Austin.
[19:45] A note on inclusivity in Austin, Texas as of now in relation to incubator groups and SKU’s accelerator program.
[21:50] Tell us more about SKU’s accelerator program and their core mission. CPG was exploding in Austin. “Why don’t we create something that can accelerate emerging brands?” For example, EPIC bar – eventually sold to General Mills.
They expanded in Fall 2019 to include a New York branch. SKU DFW (Dallas, Fort Worth) has now emerged.
Mentorship is the most special aspect of SKU’s accelerator program. New brands are able to network and receive basically unparalleled guidance.
[26:40] What kind of brands should apply to SKU’s accelerator program? At least 200K to 1 million in sales. A great story. Founders enjoy learning and receiving mentorship. Magic! There’s a gut feeling to it.
[27:50] Do prospective brands go through an interview process when applying to SKU’s accelerator program?
Yes! They pitch their brand and share their story. It’s important to see how they respond to questions – do they know what they know and are they receptive to feedback?
[28:56] What do you see most brands that are a part of SKU’s accelerator program struggling with? Marketing? Branding? It’s never the same thing. It could be an operational error or major marketing issues (such as not knowing your demographic).
[30:00] Is there a recurring theme between the brands that SKU’s accelerator program takes on? They are coachable and receptive to feedback. Be humble.
Some founders choose not to listen – those founders aren’t a good fit for SKU’s accelerator program. Relax and let go of rigidity – it’s tough, but it’s the best way to learn.
[31:37] How many people apply to SKU’s accelerator program? Roughly, 100 per cycle. Our 9th cohort is launching soon. Companies do give up some equity when they join – but that encourages everyone involved to really dig in.
[33:07] A note on COVID. Some brands are doing better as they were able to pivot back in March – they leaned into eCommerce. Small brands can be more agile.
[34:08] To quote Breyer’s LinkedIn: “Don’t tell me something can’t be done. Let’s work to make it a reality.” What are some recurring roadblocks you see businesses struggling with?
If you don’t have the coin to spend, think scrappy! Figure it out one your own. Leverage interns (paid!!!) before you hire a professional team.
[35:35] How big are the teams you’re working with? 1-2 people! Founders end up doing SO much. Especially, in the beginning.
[37:40] Don’t raise money too early on. You won’t know what to do with it! This happened to Breyer herself at Naturally Curly – the team got “fat.” You should have to justify every dollar spent and hire made. Sometimes, outsourcing is better.
In some cases, you do not need to hire a “full head count.” You could bleed money. Payroll can become a company’s biggest cost. Justify ROI on everything. Every person should generate revenue or traffic.
[40:00] What’re some of your favorite CPG brands as of late? Briogeo® Hair Care.
[41:00] Follow SKU on social to learn more about Breyer’s favorite emerging brands!! Out now.
[42:18] Who are some CPG entrepreneurs that inspire you?
[44:02] In your opinion, what are a couple of things that smaller consumer goods brands should focus on to accelerate their growth?
[47:30] Stay tuned for SKU’s accelerator program announcements by following SKU and UMAI Marketing on Instagram.
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Alison Smith:All right everyone, welcome to the UMAI Social Circle where we talk consumer goods marketing tips to help business owners and marketers grow.
I’m Alison and that’s Karen, we are co-founders of UMAI and we’re here being joined by Michelle Breyer, who is the chief operating officer at SKU’s accelerator program, the consumer products accelerator that calls Austin home. Welcome, Michelle.
Michelle Breyer:Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Alison Smith:We’re excited to be talking to you.
Michelle Breyer:I love what you guys do, and I love what you do for companies in this space, and we’re all one big happy family here in Austin.
Alison Smith:That’s right. So, I think we really wanted to dive into your background first.
Michelle Breyer:Oh, boy.
Alison Smith:Because, it was really interesting. So, you got your start in journalism?
Michelle Breyer:Yes. Yes. Yeah, and I thought I was always going to be a reporter. I loved being a reporter. I loved writing about entrepreneurs.
It was probably the feature stories on founders were my favorite thing. Never expected to be a founder, never expected to have an amazing job where I get to work with founders, but yeah, I loved being a business reporter.
Karin Samelson:Was there a founder story that you can think of now that you just… will always stay with you, that was just super inspiring?
Michelle Breyer:Well, I actually followed John Mackey from Whole Foods around for year. I had covered Whole Foods when they were a tiny company… or not totally tiny, but much tinier, like 12 stores.
Which really ages me, but oh well. I was really kind of amazed, one day I turned around, and they were a billion dollar company and it’s like, how did they get here?
They used to be this tiny, little, regional grocery chain. So, I did a year long project where I basically followed John Mackey around for a year, went to store openings, just got to know him really well, and I think that was my most memorable.
It was a series of articles that all ran on a Sunday, but definitely my most memorable.
Michelle Breyer:I’d say second to that was Herb Kelleher from Southwest Airlines. It was a two hour interview where he must have smoked two packs of cigarettes during that time, but he is the most charismatic, amazing, amazing entrepreneur you’ve ever met.
I know he’s passed away since then, but you would have followed him anywhere. you would have invested any amount of money because he was that-
Karin Samelson:I have to look into him. I don’t know anything about him. But John Mackey, following… that’s experience to take with you to SKU’s accelerator program. That’s incredible.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, it really was an amazing experience because I spent a lot of time in stores. And, stores in Boulder, in Beverly Hills, in New York.
And the brands we work with, these are the brands that you see in a Whole Foods store and they’re really the reason I think that Whole Foods is so successful, because they have all these emerging brands and they were probably, maybe one of the first chains that focused on those type of brands.
Karin Samelson:Yeah, very cool. My fondest memories of CPG are going to those conventions, and I don’t know if you know who Scott Price is, but he was-
Michelle Breyer:Oh, yeah.
Karin Samelson:… I say this really fondly and lovingly, we would refer to them as the OG Whole Foods hippies because they’re this group of the coolest folks that started at Whole Foods, right when it was starting.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah. We had a guy at Statesman, when I worked there, who was one of their first investors. And, he was a hippie, kind of groovy guy, and then one day he retired.
I think he was probably in his 50s and had… I mean, I can’t even imagine what he was worth, you would never have known it because he was such a down to earth guy.
But I think there was this whole group of them, that just they were in it for really the right reasons. Well, I don’t think there’s a wrong reason for investing in a company, but they just really were having fun with it. They had fun being a part of this growing company.
Karin Samelson:So, you grew up in California, is that correct?
Michelle Breyer:Yes. Yes.
Karin Samelson:And, what drew you to Austin? Was the Statesman the first newspaper job you had?
Michelle Breyer:No, I actually took a job in San Antonio first. I was living in San Diego and I was just ready for a change. And, I was getting a couple of job offers.
I had sent out a whole bunch of clips, you send out newspaper clips, and had gotten job offers in Tennessee and Southern California, other papers in Southern California, and Great Falls, Montana.
And then the San Antonio Light flew me out there for… so I worked on the paper for a week, because you had what they called try outs, and it was Christmastime, almost exactly this time of year, and I just fell in love with it.
I fell in love with the people at the paper, with the town. I was ready to do something really radical, so I was in my 20s, and I’m like, “I’m moving to Texas, whoo.” And, it was the best thing that I ever did.
Karin Samelson:So, so glad you ended up here. It’s great.
Michelle Breyer:I am too. Can’t even imagine if I hadn’t because of all the…
Thinking of all the friends and just the things that have happened here, starting a company, everything happened that probably wouldn’t have happened had I not moved here. Who knows what would have replaced it, but it’s been a pretty good run.
Alison Smith:Working with the Statesman, and then San Antonio, then you started NaturallyCurly, is that the right order of events?
Alison Smith:And, was that a blog or a community first, or how’d that go?
Michelle Breyer:It really was a total hobby. I had some curly friends at the paper and we would complain about our hair all the time and…
moving from California where I had a whole routine, straightening it, and then putting hot curlers in, and then plastering it with hairspray. That just wasn’t going to work here.
And, so I had to come to peace with my hair for the first time in my life and I-
Alison Smith:Because of humidity?
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, the heat and humidity were… I just couldn’t fight it anymore.
And, I had some friends who worked at the paper with me and we had this similar issues and so we were complaining about our hair at a party and someone overheard us.
“There must be other people like you who complain about your hair, you should start a magazine or a website.” And we did, as a hobby.
Totally as a hobby. No intentions of it being a business, making any money. But, we tapped into something. And, I think that’s also been something that I’ve taken with me to SKU’s accelerator program is a sense of being on the front of a trend.
Michelle Breyer:Because, we were at the very front of a trend. There was no curly hair industry, and we helped create that industry.
We proved to brands, there’s more than half the population that has curly hair. We spend a lot of money, we spend more money than people with straight hair, so maybe you need to take this seriously.
But, it was really all of these emerging brands, like one person entrepreneurs, one person companies, female founders largely, primarily women of color, and they were creating products in their kitchens and they were showing the L’Oréals and the Unilevers of the world that this was a market.
I mean, they were the leaders.
Michelle Breyer:And it was an an amazing thing to watch, and I’m seeing the same thing now in food and beverage and all these other consumer product companies.
People want brands with a story, they want people who are passionate about what they do, and that they are doing this because they are filling a need in their own lives. And, that was 100% the way it was happening in curly hair.
Alison Smith:So, I’m guessing with SKU’s accelerator program, that’s something that you really look at, getting in front a trend?
Michelle Breyer:Oh yeah, yeah. Or, if you are a part of a trend that’s already big, you want to offer something unique in that trend.
What we’re starting to see in curly hair specifically, it was really easy to get a big audience, community, customer base, at the beginning…
because, it was unusual for anyone to offer a product for curly hair, and now there’s so many of them you better be offering something revolutionary, different ingredients, different way of applying, different…
it’s a cream, gel, dry spray or something. You can’t just be a me too anymore, and I think that we see that in food and bev and really everything.
Alison Smith:So, where is NaturallyCurly now? Are you still working on it? What’s-
Michelle Breyer:Well, actually, they still call me up on a regular basis when there are things happening where they need advice or help. 22 years later it’s still operating. It’s kind of amazing.
I mean, it makes me really happy. It’s undergone a lot of changes over the years, but there’s still some people who were there almost from the beginning.
Not the founders but just people who joined the company, a lot of them were people who discovered it when they were dealing with their own hair issues, so they came to it with a sense of it was theirs, too. Which I love. They were a part of this company.
Karin Samelson:22 years-
Alison Smith:Yeah, I know.
Karin Samelson:… of community building is insane.
Michelle Breyer:It is insane.
Alison Smith:And, now what you’re saying, why was not a need being met 22 years ago? It’s so wild.
Michelle Breyer:It makes me angry.
Sometimes, I still get angry about it because it was this perception that everybody wanted to look a certain way, and that if you didn’t fit this very defined, little box of what was considered okay, then, “We don’t even want to mess with you.
Our marketing department at this huge consumer product company, you’re not on our radar, so we’re going to ignore you.”
And, what they ended up doing was missing the boat. I mean, I don’t know how many times Pantene has relaunched a curly line. Because they just never got it right and even if they did get it right, there’s still a lot of people who it’s like, “You don’t care about this. You’re only-“
Alison Smith:Just trying to hit the market?
Michelle Breyer:I’m going to go to the brand where I know the woman who started it, and I know she did it because she authentically wanted to help her own curls, and she understands the ingredients.
I don’t trust this bigger company who ignored me for decades. I love Pantene, don’t get me wrong, this is not throwing shade on Pantene.
Alison Smith:Don’t come for her.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, I can see that happening.
Alison Smith:But it’s so crazy, you’re saying they still get it wrong.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, in a lot of cases. I remember a very well-known company… I mean, I’ll just say it, come on. It was Dove.
And, Dove came out with a curly line and it was a big deal because they had put all this money behind a campaign that was the most beautiful campaign.
They do that better than anybody, like the real woman and made you cry, and they were telling their curly hair stories and-
Alison Smith:Yeah, I’ve definitely cried on Dove commercials.
Michelle Breyer:Oh, yeah. And, it was that typical thing, “I didn’t feel good about myself and I hated my hair,” and then the actual product line was so horrible.
It was like one shampoo, one conditioner, and one styling product for every kind of curly hair. And I was like, “So, you spent all this money over here, but you never even did your research, your homework-“
Alison Smith:Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s not one box again. Yeah.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, marketing cannot… let’s see, you can’t market yourself out of a bad product, I guess is what I’m saying.
Karin Samelson:Absolutely. What’s that lifetime value? You can get somebody to buy the product-
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, one time.
Michelle Breyer:And, they’re never going to purchase it again. And, they’re going to tell all their friends it’s a bad product.
Karin Samelson:Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s right.
Michelle Breyer:So, just take some of that beautiful filming, marketing money and spend the time on the product.
Alison Smith:Yeah, I actually learned a lot from your site. I learned I need to do a test with my hair to see how porous it is.
Michelle Breyer:Did it float?
Alison Smith:And, I learned that if it floats or sinks. And, then I learned I’m like an L1 wave or something. It’s like, man, [crosstalk 00:13:20]-
Karin Samelson:So, educational.
Michelle Breyer:It is, it is. It’s kind of mind boggling and only curly girls really understand this, and you can walk up to any curly girl in the street and you can get into a half hour conversation and they will understand everything.
They will talk about their porosity, they will talk about all this, and someone walking by without curly hair will think you’re crazy. But we don’t care.
Karin Samelson:I love how you branded them curly girls. You say that and I think that’s so fun. I’ve never called myself a straight hair girl, and it’s not cool, I’m never going to do that. Curly girls are [crosstalk 00:14:01]-
Michelle Breyer:Well, you could. It’s just like being a… we even say just a curly, being a curly because you’ve had to probably come to peace with it and it’s been something that you probably didn’t always love, there was a…
I don’t know, there’s just something unique about how it impacts your life.
Karin Samelson:That’s awesome. So, 22 years of community, what are some things that you, your team, everybody there, has done to really keep that community alive over that long of a course?
Michelle Breyer:Influencers come and go. And, you probably see that, you know this.
There’s a lifespan on influencers, which I feel bad about, but they are their brand, and there’s always somebody right behind them who is ready to take their place.
But the website has all of these voices, and it has 22 years of content and it is evergreen content a lot of it, and from an SEO standpoint, you can’t come close.
You type curly hair in, NaturallyCurly will come up day in, day out. That’s just the way it is. People pass it down to each other.
Hair stylists pass it down to each other. There’s this just constant new generation of people who go there to get their information, and I think that’s why it continues to live on.
Karin Samelson:That’s awesome. Well, inspirational, first of all. But what led you to SKU’s accelerator program?
Michelle Breyer:Well, we sold the company in 2018 and I was still consulting but I was doing a lot of… I had started to do some mentoring before then.
I really love mentoring, and had mentored for DivInc and MassChallenge, and was recruited to SKU’s accelerator program by one of the board members. They were really looking for mentors with some beauty background and personal care background to…
I mean, there were people there, but just to really increase the number of people who could help brands that had that… that were in that category.
Because, they like to have category experts. And, I just fell in love with it. I mean, my company that I mentored for was a company called Lamik Beauty, and she is this amazing force of nature. And, she had actually done my eyebrows at an event years ago, where I was speaking at an event.
So, I already knew her and really liked her and I just liked the whole community. I mean, it’s an amazing community. It really is like a who’s who. I mean, you know, it’s like rock stars.
Michelle Breyer:And, they came to me in the fall of 2019 and said that there was a position and they wanted me to consider taking it.
And, I had said to people before that, when they asked, “What kinds of jobs would you want to do from now on?” I thought, “Well, I want to be a mentor, and I just need to find a way to make that my full time job.”
So, I did it. I did it. I feel lucky every day that it worked out that way, because SKU’s accelerator program has been so much fun. It’s been such an exciting time to be a part of it too, because we’ve been expanding, and for SKU’s accelerator program 9th cohort we have companies who applied from all over the country, so many strong companies…
Sorry, I’m shaking my computer so you’re probably like, “Whoo.”
Karin Samelson:I’m on a ride.
Michelle Breyer:And, it’s an incredible time to be a part of CPG in general, but definitely to be a part of SKU’s accelerator program where you have this impact on people’s companies and you can help them realize their potential.
And, we’re launching a diversity and inclusion track with Naturally Austin in the late spring, early summer.
So, that’s really exciting and that was something that I’ve been really… Emily Kealey and I came up with the idea for doing this over a couple of cocktails, which is how NaturallyCurly started too.
But, just this sense that we needed to do better as a community in terms of making sure we have diversity. And, CPG is not as diverse as it needs to be, so why isn’t it, and what is that bridge that we can help create to make it a much more inclusive community?
So, we’re really excited about it, it’s called MO, and I just can’t wait. So, many amazing mentors want to get involved, people of color.
Companies have just jumped on board, Amplify Snacks, and Gathered Foods, and [Egan Nelson 00:19:09], everybody wants to get involved because they want to… everybody sees this as something so important. It’s exciting.
Karin Samelson:So exciting. I saw that in the newsletter today, and I was just pumped. Emily’s been talking about it. Well, not divulging any of the details, but just mentioning it, and I just cannot wait to hear the details.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, yeah. And, we’ll probably try to recruit as many people from the community as we can to get involved with it, subject matter experts, because we just want to create the best possible program. I don’t know. I can’t say enough good things about it.
Karin Samelson:That’s exciting. Yeah, one of my biggest-
Alison Smith:So, exciting.
Karin Samelson:… complaints with Austin is it’s just not diverse. And, the same to say with CPG, it’s just not as inclusive as you want to see it. And so, I’m glad that there are things being put into place by our leaders in the industry to help be more inclusive. I think it’s exciting.
Michelle Breyer:Well, and it’s interesting for me specifically because the industry I came from, specifically textured hair, was so the opposite.
I mean, it was kind of the rule rather than the exception that the company was founded by a person of color. I mean, I’d say probably 80% of the companies that had been founded, and there were so many companies founded, were founded by women of color.
So, that was just something that became the norm and I wasn’t seeing that necessarily in the greater CPG community.
Karin Samelson:Exciting for you to take that knowledge and bring it here and share it.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, hopefully. We were talking about it today, we have an amazing woman named… her name is Bianca.
She is this incredible instructor of personal finance at Rice University, and she is the fractional CFO for a company that was in out DFW track, this amazing 17 year old sauce boss, Tyla-Simone Crayton.
So, Bianca worked with Tyla-Simone and she’s getting involved with this, and she’s as excited as anybody. She’s like, “Oh my God, this is…”
Everyone is taking it so much in this wonderful way, this ownership of it. “I love this, what can I do to make this successful?” And we were on the phone today, and it was just so many great ideas and so much passion and energy. It was amazing.
Alison Smith:Definitely. So, for people that don’t know SKU, which everyone one should check it out, tell us a little bit more about it, what’s SKU’s core mission?
Michelle Breyer:We were founded in 2011 by a group of local CPG entrepreneurs, Shari Wynne Ressler and Clayton Christopher and Scott Jensen, Joe Ross, Dan Graham.
It really got founded… awareness that the same kind of support and resources that existed for the tech industry, which is very entrepreneurial here in Austin, did not exist for CPG.
And CPG was exploding in Austin, or just starting to get to the point where it was a major force. So, there was a sense like, “Why don’t we create something that can help accelerate emerging brands?”
And it had some initial big successes, which kind of proved that this can be something… it could be a force. Epic was a huge success. Sold to General Mills for $100 million.
Michelle Breyer:So, the first track had four companies and it has progressively… we’re up to seven to eight companies per track.
We expanded into New York in the fall of 2019, a partnership with BeyondBrands, which is a marketing company for CPG, and expanded into the Twin Cities this last summer, with a partnership with a purpose driven accelerator, and it’s aimed at incubating and accelerating purpose driven CPGs.
It’s called Impact SKU. And then we were recruited up to Dallas, kind of unexpectedly. If you had told me this time last year we would have expanded into DFW, that wasn’t even on the radar.
But one of our amazing mentors, Richard Riccardi, they were trying to build a more robust CPG community in DFW, he’s like, “We need SKU up here. Would you guys be up for it?” And so, in the course of three months we put together SKU DFW and it was amazing.
Michelle Breyer:The common thread with all of the programs is that through super engaged mentorship and curriculum, you can really help these startups grow much quicker.
And the mentorship is really, I think, the special thing about SKU’s accelerator program. It’s all these incredibly seasoned, successful CPG leaders and investors, who are giving their time and their expertise and their network to help these emerging brands.
And it’s just an incredible thing to watch, when you see the CEO of Deep Eddy working with a beverage company to help figure out how to get where they want to be, quicker.
Because if you’re working with someone who’s already done it before, they can really help you in so many ways.
Michelle Breyer:Pretty incredible, one of the companies that was a part of DFW, it was a plant-based jerky company, and on that team we had the founder of…
no, the VP of Frito-Lays, the baked division and SmartPop!, and then we had the VP of marketing for Amplify Snacks, so SkinnyPop and Pirate’s Booty, and we had the head of innovation of Converse shoes, and we had an operations expert and a branding expert.
And, it was just amazing to see how it took that founder literally from here to here.
He says to me, I must talk to him once a week, “I can’t believe how lucky I am. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.” And, now he has this amazing group of advisors, who have just taken him under their wing and are really helping him potentially become the next generation of success stories.
So, that to me, is really kind of the essence of SKU. That nurturing, mentoring, educating this next generation of CPG companies.
Alison Smith:And gosh, you cannot put a price on that type of mentorship, like just-
Michelle Breyer:No, you can’t. You can’t. And, just to have people who just enjoy and are passionate about doing it. The Scott Jensen’s of the world, who will just give their time and their knowledge and just love it. That’s an incredible thing. It’s like gold.
Alison Smith:Definitely. So, what type of brands should apply to SKU? What type of brands do you look for, for your programs?
Michelle Breyer:It’s kind of a combination of things. It’s number one a product that has something unique about it and it’s in a hot category, and they have some traction.
We like our companies, like in Austin track, to have about at least 200,000 in sales. So, between 200,000 and a million is the sweet spot.
We want founders who have a really great story and who are really passionate about what they do, and who enjoy learning, they know what they know and they know what they don’t know and they are wiling to be surrounded by mentors and to learn and listen and grow.
And then there’s a little bit of the magic behind it where you just have a gut feeling about a company, where it’s like, I just really like them, I think that they have a real chance of being a big success if we can just plug in some of these key things, we can really help them.
Alison Smith:So, do you go through a few rounds of interview phases, where that’s where you get to see their charisma or things like that?
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, and they ultimately have to do a pitch interview to a group of mentors. And, you learn a lot then. You’ve tasted their products by then, or smelled them, or whatever…
because there’s not just food and beverage companies, there’s personal care and clothing and all kinds of things. So, you’ve had that chance to touch and feel and taste, but then when you see the founder pitch, it really gives you a window into who they are.
If they’re asked questions do they get super defensive? How do they respond to questions? How well do they know their market?
In talking to them, do they have a clear idea of what they think they can get out of SKU? Because if it’s just, “I want to raise money,” and that’s the only thing, then that’s not a really good candidate, because SKU is really about the whole process of becoming…
figuring out who you are as a company and really developing your strategy.
Alison Smith:Well, that being said, what do you see most brands struggle with when they come on to your accelerator program? Is it the financing aspect? Is it marketing messaging? What’s the biggest pain point, I guess, for brands and how can they_
Michelle Breyer:It’s never one thing. With one brand it might be that because they have the wrong co-packer, their margins are much lower than they should be.
So, there may be operations issues. And in another case, there may be major marketing issues, like they don’t know who their market is, or they’re going after a market who is not the market that’s actually going to be buying their products.
So, you never see just one thing that is the biggest issue that every company faces.
Alison Smith:Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Michelle Breyer:Some have one thing really down, like they know their branding is beautiful, they don’t need to make any changes to that, but then their margins are so low that they’re never going to make any money.
Karin Samelson:Is there a recurring theme with some of the most successful brands that have come through the program? Is there something that you see in all of them that’s similar?
Michelle Breyer:They’re really coachable. They really want to learn.
They are sponges and they know how to take the information from their mentors and some of it may be… how to synthesize it to make their company a better company.
And you’d think that everybody who goes through an accelerator has those attributes, but that’s not the case.
Some people just… they think they know it all. I’d say most of the time with SKU founders, they are coachable. But I’ve seen throughout the various accelerators I’ve been a part of and incubators, there are just founders who don’t want to listen.
They really think that they know their market, they know their product, they know it all. It’s like, then why are you in this program?
I mean, you can’t listen to everything that everybody says and you have to have some sense that you know a little bit about what you’re doing, but you can’t be so rigid that you’re not listening to people who may know more than you do.
Karin Samelson:Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think that’s so tough sometimes, especially with people whose heart and soul is in this product that they’ve worked so hard on and they think they know what’s best. And, sometimes you just got to take that mentorship and learn from it.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, totally. Yeah. Exactly.
Karin Samelson:Very cool. Well, how many people usually apply to SKU’s accelerator program?
Michelle Breyer:A couple hundred.
Karin Samelson:Oh, wow.
Michelle Breyer:And, they’re really from all over the country. And then we narrow it down to about 15 for the interview process, and then we’ll be announcing our ninth cohort in January.
Michelle Breyer:We have some really, really, really amazing companies. I’m so excited.
Alison Smith:That’s so exciting. So, it is like an equity… do they give equity?
Michelle Breyer:They do.
Michelle Breyer:[crosstalk 00:32:06] unique. It’s kind of a Shark Tank type of approach, but because of that, because the companies are giving up a little bit of equity and the mentors all have fractional equity in all the companies in a track, there’s a little bit of… there’s skin in the game.
So, there’s a seriousness to it, and maybe a little bit more willingness to open up your Rolodex and dig in a little bit more.
But, I have to say the reason that most of our mentors get involved is not for the equity. They get involved because they love it, and they love… it excites them to work with founders. They love working with other mentors, they love this community.
And if it was only for the money, I don’t think they’d be the right mentors.
Alison Smith:Right. I mean, it sounds like a lot of fun to help build really cool CPG [inaudible 00:33:00].
Michelle Breyer:Oh, it’s so much fun. Yeah, yeah, it’s amazing.
Karin Samelson:That’s why we love it.
Alison Smith:Never a dull moment.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, that’s for sure. And COVID was never a dull moment in every possible way, but-
Alison Smith:Oh, my gosh.
Michelle Breyer:… we’ve got some of these companies, some are doing so much better than they even projected pre-COVID.
They just were able to pivot to D-to-C and maybe that’s what they should have been all along, but they didn’t know it. And so, one of them, Esker Beauty, her sales are double digits higher than what she projected.
Michelle Breyer:So, that’s kind of exciting. It’s like the silver lining of all this craziness that we’ve been going through this year.
Alison Smith:And, a great thing for smaller brands that can pivot and pivot quickly.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, exactly. Maybe, they’re a little bit more flexible.
Karin Samelson:Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah, those March humps in sales were just incredible for a lot of our brands that we work with. Just thankful to be in this business, right?
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, really.
Karin Samelson:Yeah, well, I love in your LinkedIn bio it says, “Don’t tell me something can’t be done, let’s work to make it a reality.”
And I love that, because I feel like sometimes there are just these roadblocks that people don’t know how to get over by themselves.
So, what are some recurring roadblocks you see with these small business owners that you work with?
Michelle Breyer:A lot of it has to do with how to do… if they don’t have the money to do the things they need to do to make the money, they need to get more customers, but to get more customers costs money. So, I’d say that’s a big recurring theme.
So, we try to teach them how to do things scrappy. Like, how to do things on their own until they can afford to pay for them.
And, I think you guys have been helpful in spreading the word about some of the things that you can do from a social marketing perspective before you can afford to…
At some point, you want someone doing that for you, but in the beginning you may have to learn to do that yourself. But, it is like a chicken/egg thing.
So, I think that’s one of those where you just have to figure out some things on your own or leverage UT and interns and things like that, till you can get to that point where you can hire a professional team.
Alison Smith:Yeah, so how big generally are the teams, the teams of the brands that you work with?
Michelle Breyer:One to two people.
Alison Smith:That’s what I figured. I mean, that’s what we see all the time. There’s so many facets of CPG, there’s so many moving parts and I’m just consistently impressed with how much founders do.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah. It’s funny, I was boxing up a whole bunch of things for mentors. It was interesting. We had these special boxes that were made and it’s like a puzzle to put them together.
So, I was sitting on my living room floor putting the together, packing them up, taping up the boxes, putting on the UPS stickers…
but that’s what I used to do all the time at NaturallyCurly, before we got to 50 people, I was packing up 500 goodie bags or whatever. You have to be willing to do that. If you are not willing to do that, then you shouldn’t be a founder.
You should know how to do every single job and you should never think that a job is below you.
Karin Samelson:I love that advice. I mean some people get really surprised with…
An example, Hima of Tin Star Foods Ghee, they have, what, 50,000 followers on Instagram? She does everything. And, people are so surprised by that. I remember we would run their social campaigns or giveaways, they had always worked with Hima, directly with Hima.
It was just incredible that they thought that it was a team of 10 or so. And, we’ve worked on different brands like that, where the founder has been running the social for so long, and everything else, and people are just really surprised by that.
And, I think that that’s just a note for founders now that might think they need other people right now, but they’re just not at that stage yet, they just to grind.
Michelle Breyer:And the most dangerous thing that can happen is raise money too quickly almost, where you have all this money and you aren’t going to make smart decisions with it.
I think that’s another common theme. And it may seem like, “Wow, what a great problem to have,” it’s not a good problem to have because if you raise money, you should be as scrappy as you ever were and that’s when you can make some really bad decisions.
Alison Smith:Gosh, I love that. Any vague case story that you have about that?
Michelle Breyer:My own company. It’s crazy, at one point we had so many people. I had to tell this story all the time. We were so fat. We were so fat and you can…
You should have to justify every single dollar you spend and every single hire. If you don’t need to hire a full head count, sometimes it’s better to outsource.
I’m a big fan now of outsourcing because that can be much more efficient and even though I’m proud of the fact that we hired so many people and for a lot of people we were the reason they were able to buy their first house and everything.
I think that, in some cases you do not need to hire a full head count. There are people out there that do a really good job, like you guys, and they might be able to do a better job for less money than having a full head count.
Alison Smith:So, is the main reason to have too many employees because you’re maybe bleeding money? Or, is it do you think smaller teams sometimes just work-
Michelle Breyer:All of the above.
Alison Smith:… better.
Michelle Breyer:Payroll is the biggest cost for a lot of companies and then also you aren’t maybe thinking smartly. You should justify everything.
You should be looking at the ROI on everything. Is this make sense, these marketing dollars that we’re spending over here?
Or in a way, we should have been thinking every single person needs to either be generating revenue or generating traffic, like eyeballs. And if they’re not doing that, how are they at least supporting those two initiatives? And, if you can’t really figure that out, then why are they here?
Alison Smith:I love that. I’m a big fan of small teams.
Alison Smith:I’m into that.
Karin Samelson:So, what are some of your favorite CPG brands right now? Ones that you’ve worked with, or ones that you admire?
Michelle Breyer:Oh my gosh. I have some beauty ones, and some of them are owned by friends, but I just love them. Briogeo is a haircare brand that I just love.
And I love the founder who’s a friend of mine, but I think they’re really creative and their packaging is great. Oh my God, that’s such a hard… it’s like Sophie’s Choice [crosstalk 00:40:30]-
Karin Samelson:I know.
Michelle Breyer:… child.
Alison Smith:[inaudible 00:40:34] some brands that we should be looking at to inspire-
Karin Samelson:Yeah, maybe not favorite.
Michelle Breyer:I’m not going to tell you who’s in this next track, but there’s one in particular that I think is amazing. They’re all amazing, but this one, I’m just addicted to.
Karin Samelson:Is it in food an bev? Can you tell us that?
Michelle Breyer:It is in food and bev. Stay tuned.
Karin Samelson:Ugh, I cannot wait.
Alison Smith:So, can people follow along with progress? Would they just need to follow each individual brand?
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, follow our social. We have something today just like stay tuned, we will be announcing. We will-
Alison Smith:This is like Shark Tank Austin local [crosstalk 00:41:12]-
Michelle Breyer:Yes, it is. But better.
Alison Smith:But, better.
Karin Samelson:How fun is that. So, do you post updates on your Instagram for SKU’s Instagram on how the track’s going?
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, we do.
Michelle Breyer:And we try to feature our mentors, our companies, words of wisdom from them, and then… That, to me, is who SKU is. SKU is not me, it’s not… SKU is our founders and our mentors and the products. So, we try to put those front and center on our social.
Karin Samelson:Very cool. When are you announcing?
Michelle Breyer:The first week in January.
Karin Samelson:First week. Can’t wait.
Michelle Breyer:Yes, we’ll let you know, so you can yell it to the world.
Karin Samelson:Yeah, we’ll shout it out, for sure.
Karin Samelson:Awesome. Well, I think that this one is one that we always like asking because we want to be inspired too, and we always love hearing about new, innovative, inspirational people. So, who are some CPG entrepreneurs that really inspire you?
Michelle Breyer:Hmm. Oh, gosh. There’s a guy who I met this year who’s with Pepsi, his name is Paul Nardone, I think he’s amazing.
He was the CEO of Annie’s, the pasta sauce, but he’s also founded a couple of companies and he just… his whole perspective on why you create new products and how you create new products is just fascinating and wonderful.
I mean, I love Scott Jensen, I think he’s amazing. He just gives so much of his time and when he talks about how he created his company and this whole new category, I think that’s really inspiring.
Karin Samelson:That’s Rhythm Superfoods, right?
Michelle Breyer:Yeah. And then of course, Clayton Christopher, because just everything he touches turns to gold.
Karin Samelson:How is that?
Michelle Breyer:I don’t know, I’m just glad he’s a part of…. that he’s involved with SKU because he’s amazing. It’s like Waterloo Sparkling Water, oh yeah, Clayton was involved.
Cavu, Clayton was involved, he was a founder. It’s pretty amazing. Just those people who have that potential. Jason Karp, founder of Hu Kitchen, who just started HumanCo and… Just these serial entrepreneurs are amazing to me.
Karin Samelson:Yeah, super inspirational, and I just wonder when they sleep.
Michelle Breyer:They don’t. They hang upside down in their caves because they’re bats and they don’t sleep.
Karin Samelson:That’s awesome. Well, a final question for you, in your opinion what are three small things, or maybe big things, that small consumer goods brands should focus on to experience growth?
Michelle Breyer:Let’s see, well, know who your core audience is. Really, really know. And, it may be totally different than who you think it is, so be very open to having your…
We had a company who thought that their market was Millennials and it was really moms of young kids.
And their marketing had to be completely different for one versus the other, but had they focused on the one, they would have been completely missing out on who their market really was and may not have succeeded.
Michelle Breyer:Let’s see, what I said about make sure that you stay scrappy.
Really every penny should have an ROI to it, so have metrics, have score cards, KPIs, as much as you can, be measuring things.
Try to get disciplined right out of the gate, so that you can measure everything that you’re doing and then you can pull the levers.
But if you don’t know why something is affecting… “Oh, our sales jumped up, but we don’t know why,” then you can’t replicate it. So, really get granular about your metrics. And, then what else? Do I have to have three?
Karin Samelson:No, you don’t. I love those two.
Karin Samelson:That’s perfect.
Michelle Breyer:Let’s keep it at two.
Karin Samelson:Yeah. And, we talked to Emily Kealey and I think that was the first thing she said, “Know your core audience. Know who you’re talking to and selling to.”
Michelle Breyer:Yeah. Everything you do affects that.
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, and that may be the hardest thing. And, that’s the hardest thing to change your mindset around too, because sometimes you just really are set [crosstalk 00:46:03]-
Karin Samelson:You want it to be.
Michelle Breyer:… I remember having this conversation with John Paul DeJoria, who was actually one of our investors, the pony tail Paul Mitchell guy?
Michelle Breyer:He said, “You know, we don’t really have curly hair products.” I’m like, “You do. Your sculpting foam. Every curly girl I know uses the sculpting foam.”
“But it’s not for curly hair.” “But they’re using it, and I bet if you do an analysis, they’re the ones that are spending the most money.”
They were the ones who were buying the sculpting foam. So, it’s like, you think it’s here, but it’s these women, and they are buying a can every two weeks. So-
Alison Smith:And, you’re not speaking to them at all.
Michelle Breyer:Yes, exactly. So, it was kind of almost a comical conversation.
I’m like, “You do have products. I use your products.” We had a woman who wrote a poem on NaturallyCurly about one of their products, a foaming pomade. It was a poem. It was the craziest thing, because she loved it so much.
Karin Samelson:Oh, my gosh.
Michelle Breyer:Like, you have curly products.
Alison Smith:I got to find that poem.
Karin Samelson:Missed opportunities, for sure.
Karin Samelson:Know your audience, stay scrappy, I think those are great pieces of advice to leave CPG owners and marketers with. I think that’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Michelle.
Michelle Breyer:Thank you, this has been so fun. I really appreciate it. Yeah. Thank you for having me.
Karin Samelson:Yeah, definitely. Is there anything you want to leave the audience with?
Michelle Breyer:[inaudible 00:47:30]-
Karin Samelson:A call to action?
Michelle Breyer:Yeah, well stay tuned for the MO track, because we’re super excited about that. And, then for the track nine company announcement.
Karin Samelson:Yeah. Can’t wait. We’ll have it. We’ll have it ready to share.
Michelle Breyer:Okay, wonderful. Well, thanks guys, have a great rest of your day.
Alison Smith:Thanks, Michelle.
Karin Samelson:Thanks, Michelle.
Narrator:UMAI Social Circle is a CPG agency driven podcast based out of Austin, Texas.
We’re excited to share more behind the scene insights, chats with industry leaders, and whatever else we learn along the way. Follow us on Instagram @umaimarketing, or check out our website umaimarketing.com.
Catch you back here soon, bye!
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