Investor Views: Brian Tockman, Principal at 301 INC

Brian Tockman, Principal at General Mills’ venture capital arm 301 INC, has a unique vantage point when it comes to Food & Beverage (F&B) investing.

From being a buyer at Target to leading operations for an e-commerce company specializing in natural brands, Brian has seen the F&B landscape through many lenses.

We sat down with Brian to ask him a few questions about what he looks for in an emerging brand and how his team works with founders and CEOs to accelerate their success, as one of today’s most prominent early-stage CPG investors.

Source: General Mills

What was your background before 301 INC?

Brian Tockman [BT]: Just before joining 301 INC, I led US operations for an e-commerce company called Abe’s Market, focusing exclusively on emerging natural and organic brands. Over half of the business for the company was food—so I now see several of Abe’s Market’s former partners at industry trade shows. In fact, Purely Elizabeth, one of the earliest brands to join the site is now one of the investment portfolio companies at 301 INC. So I’ve been in the food industry for a while, but now I’m just wearing a different hat.

Before Abe’s Market, I led business development for a green chemistry startup, leveraging plant-based materials to bring more ecologically friendly substances into everyday products. Prior, I was a Buyer at Target, and I started my career as an equities analyst at Goldman Sachs.

What do you look for in entrepreneurs/brands when considering an investment?

BT: There’s a 3-pronged approach that our team considers when evaluating potential investments:

  1. We’re passionate about working with great teams.
  2. We seek brands that we believe have strong emotional resonance with consumers and could potentially become a broader platform.
  3. We’re very focused on the products themselves. They need to be remarkable, delicious and stand out in their categories.

It’s important that we establish a collaborative working relationship with our partners to propel their businesses forward. Our model is one of deep engagement, so we’re eager to work with founders, CEOs and teams that are already excited to engage across several facets of their business.

We’re also excited when we find teams comprised of F&B industry veterans. And, of course, we look for founders with a strong passion for the products they’re selling and an authentic drive for why they created them. There’s no substitute for that. When we find that combination — a strong market position, passionate followers, plus a team of industry veterans that can take the business forward — we get very interested.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs fundraising?

BT: First, build a network. Be open to sharing what your business is, what your goals are and where the brand stands today. Be optimistic about the business’ performance and potential, but also be realistic. Set expectations with potential investors about what is likely to occur over the next several years for your business.

Then, be open about your needs as a team. What is it that your team’s really great at? What are the areas where your team is seeking guidance beyond just capital? Investors see dozens of deals a month, so it’s best to stand out as promising but real.

What is unique about 301 INC’s partnership with emerging brands?

BT: A real lynchpin to our model is always aspiring to be an indispensable partner. When 301 INC engages with an emerging brand, it’s not just as an investor providing capital, but more importantly, as a food company providing 150 years’ worth of expertise and resources. Our team of seasoned sales, marketing, supply chain, and product development specialists work in the trenches with the emerging brand teams to accelerate the business.

Our team is weighted towards functional specialists who largely gained their expertise as long-term General Mills employees. We might help formulate and launch a new product, scale a component of supply chain, or deeply understand the consumer targets for the brand.

Ours is a very high engagement model. We’re a team of operators, so there’s no better week than when we’re in the field working on a plant trial startup or with design agencies alongside a brand’s team.

Source: General Mills 301 INC

Talk to us about one of your investments – what gets you excited about the brand? And what subcategory are you especially interested in right now?

BT: Often, it’s an investment thesis around a specific trend that will lead us to select a brand. A recent example is probiotics, shown through two investments we made earlier this year in Farmhouse Culture and Purely Elizabeth.

Both brands offer probiotics in new ways. Farmhouse Culture has expanded from traditional fermented foods in sauerkraut and kimchi to the larger consumer categories of snacks and beverages, ex: snackable Kraut Krisps and sparkling beverage line called Gut Punch. Purely Elizabeth built their business around ancient grain granolas, but in the last year, announced a sub-line of probiotic granolas in delicious flavors like chocolate sea salt. Both brands are leveraging their expertise to create delicious flavor profiles, giving consumers new, portable ways to introduce probiotics into their diet.

Source: Food Business News

Both brands also have great management teams that have been working hard on these businesses for several years, and we’re thrilled to join them at this moment of their history. We have many other partners in a variety of other subcategories that get us excited, as well!

What’s one unique thing about you that most people don’t know?

BT: I’m a former entrepreneur myself. Back in 2006 when I was working full time for Target, I started a winery with two other partners in the Willamette Valley area of Oregon. I would work for Target during the day, fly to the winery on Thursday nights and take the red eye home back to Minneapolis on Sundays to get back to the day job on Monday.

So, I have a lot of empathy for founders working so hard to get their passions converted into businesses, and getting those businesses off the ground.

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