Joe Dobrow, is a 20-year veteran of the natural foods industry and recently wrote a book called Natural Prophets that chronicles its rise and its pioneers who re-wrote the playbook for small entrepreneurs. Next week Dobrow will be coming to Impact Hub Seattle to talk about his book and host a food entrepreneurship panel and strategy slam. Tickets are just $9 and are available on Brown Paper Tickets.
Tell us about your book.
Natural Prophets is an entrepreneurial history of natural foods industry. Few industries have been as influential and yet there has not been much written about it. It’s an entertaining history that is not very well known. We are lucky that this industry has grown up over our lifetime so we can hear directly from its pioneers.
I began my research to understand how these prophets were able to be so successful. Many of them were high-minded idealists, well meaning but honestly clueless. Despite steep odds, they survived and created a $100 billion industry that influences what we eat, where we shop, and have influenced other industries to be much more transparent.
You’ll be at Impact Hub next Thursday for a fun and unique event. What should attendees expect?
We will be feeding people’s stomachs and imaginations so come hungry!
There are two parts to the event. One is a panel discussion with entrepreneurs who have built this industry in the Pacific NW. The panelists will be from Theo’s Chocolate’s, Sahale Snacks, and Nature’s Path. This area has been a real center for food entrepreneurship and we have a lot to learn from them.
The second part will be a strategy slam. Companies will have 5 minutes to pitch their business plan. Some of these companies are new, and some and some are well established but making some big changes to their business plan. The panel and audience will have the opportunity to ask questions and weigh in on how innovative they are and how well they adhere to the philosophy of the triple bottom line
What inspired you to organize such an event?
Old style book events don’t work anymore. Traffic at bookstores is down – and you can’t autograph e-books! My background is in marketing so it was second nature for me to create a new type of event. Because this is a niche story, I wanted to get out into the community to find people who are interested in the topic and create an experience that is not so much focused on the book, but focused on the industry.
Seattle’s hometown industry is entrepreneurship so it made sense to have an event that highlights entrepreneurs and put in a place like Impact Hub. Seattle also has a very lively food entrepreneurship community. Having traveled across the country, I can say without reservation that there is something very unusual about it.
There’s extra significance for me personally as I’ve worked here in Seattle. In 1999 as the head of marketing for Whole Foods, I was very involved in opening our first store here on 64th and Roosevelt. There was a lot of nervousness about how we would be received as an outsider but the community welcomed us. It was one of the most exciting and satisfying store openings I’ve ever done.
What advice do you have for today’s food entrepreneur?
Patience and persistence is key. This is really timeless advice and we can look at previous generations to see how it helped them. Stonyfield Farms was in business for 9 years before they turned a profit. Gary Hirsberger talks about his “hopeless infinite naïveté” that kept him going. He was constantly borrowing money from his mother in law and robbing Peter to pay Paul until he could find acceptance and scale that would eventually feed the growth of the company. Today it’s hard to imagine going 9 years without a profit and it may not be necessary, but having that patience and persistence is one of the eternal formulas for success.
The second piece of advice is more timely. As an experienced marketing professional, I want to tell you that social media is not enough. I hear from so many startup companies that don’t have a marketing budget and are relying on facebook and instagram, sadly overestimating the reach and impact they have. You still need to do the hard work of building a brand and building your marketing infrastructure. We need to think in more than 140 character chunks about how to reach our customers and how to understand their consumption habits.