Impossible Foods recently made its grocery store debut. The eight-year-old start-up went from a research-and-development lab in Redwood City, California, onto the menus of 17,000 restaurant locations nationwide, and now into everyday consumers' kitchens.
But scaling a food company takes a lot of strategy. And to take on that task, Impossible Foods turned to a group of savvy tech executives who used to work in the mobile-phone industry.
Dennis Woodside, former Chief Executive Officer at Motorola Mobility and Chief Operating Officer at Dropbox, started his role as president of Impossible Foods in March. In April, he found his Motorola background would come in handy, and quickly. Woodside was thrown into a crisis, as the company known for its award-winning Impossible Burger 2.0 ran out of meatless meat.
"I think in the second week I was up in Oakland at our plant, and we were trying to hire because we simply did not have enough people at that time to make enough burgers," Woodside tells CNBC Make It, reflecting on the company's shortage in June.
"In fact, we took 100 people from our regular city office, people who are in sales, in marketing and R&D, and we brought them up to the plant and put them on the line, packing burgers and cleaning the floors and moving boxes, because that's what we needed," he says.
In typical start-up fashion, Impossible Foods was facing short-term challenges, ramping up as the demand for meatless patties skyrocketed.
According to SPINS retail sales data published by The Good Food Institute, the plant-based meat industry has shown extraordinary growth. Today, the "fake meat" market brings in about $801 million a year, up 37% since 2017 when sales were around $584 million. Latest predictions from UBS investment bank says the entire plant-based meat market will reach $85 billion by 2030.
Impossible Foods' supply chain was scalable, but it needed the right people to run it. It was a "company-wide scramble," as Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown told CNN in late June.
At the helm of the scramble were employees like Woodside, whose experiences manufacturing expansions in times of breakthrough growth would prove themselves useful.
Woodside is just one example of how Impossible Foods — a food company learning to hire like a tech company — looks to executives from the smartphone industry to meet customers' hungry demand.
"If you think about a phone, a mobile phone can have a couple hundred different parts, and if you somehow fail to procure a single part, you can hold up the launch of an entire phone," Woodside says. "And your customers are big customers, like Verizon and AT&T, who need your phone on Monday, Dec. 9, and not Dec. 7, and not Dec. 10, and so you have to hit that window, which is very difficult."
Impossible Foods is appealing to some consumers' desire to reduce animal meat consumption across the world.
And as Impossible Foods uses this type of philosophy to sell its products, its employees can tap into their tech expertise to help communicate that on a larger scale, on platforms like social media and apps, Giovanni Montanelli tells CNBC Make It. Montanelli is the president and founder of VentiQuattro, a California-based consultancy that advises food producers on U.S. or international market expansion.
Those in the tech space also traditionally have the industry connections to raise money quickly and finance operations while building out a large-scale supply chain, Montanelli says.
One example: In 2011, when Google announced it was acquiring Motorola Mobility, handsets and smartphones were in the early phases of replacing 3G phones, and many challenges arose that Woodside can relate to today at Impossible Foods. They include how to drive growth, how to scale and hire a team, and how to swiftly solve complex supply chain, sales and marketing problems.
"We find that bringing people in from different disciplines and different backgrounds creates a better company," Woodside says of Impossible Foods' hiring strategy. "You get better decision making; also, for me, bringing people in that are used to explosive growth.
"With that kind of growth, you have to think about scaling really fast," he says. "And you have to be able to be very flexible in how you plan, and in how you think about the investments that you're going to be making to satisfy demand that's going to be doubling and tripling every year for some time to come."
Scaling up food production, although a completely different end product, has comparisons.
"We don't have that many ingredients," Woodside says. (The Impossible Burger is sourced from few, widely-available ingredients, like soy, one of the largest crops in the world.) "But the complexity around procuring those ingredients and getting the ingredients into the plant on time, scaling up manufacturing, are some similarities to the challenges of building and selling millions of phones."
In May, Impossible Foods hired Woodside's former Motorola Mobility colleague Sheetal Shah, who joined the company as the new senior vice president of product and operations.
Shah is considered one of the brightest "scaleup veterans" of Silicon Valley, since he has extensive experience navigating companies through this planning and manufacturing process, Rachel Konrad, chief communications officer at Impossible Foods, tells CNBC Make It.
Before coming to Impossible Foods, Woodside and Shah collectively spent over 18 years at Motorola Mobility, a company that reigns as a leader in technology supply chain with its 1980s invention of Six Sigma, a set of techniques and tools to streamline processes famously used by former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch.
Woodside and Shah aren't the first people from the tech space to work at Impossible Foods. As Impossible sits in the heart of Silicon Valley, its employees have also come from places like Tesla, Apple and Google — as well as from the food business itself, including General Mills and Kraft, Woodside says.
Woodside says that by being technologically-driven, Impossible Foods can quickly respond to its customers' and partners' feedback for things like how to improve its products' tastes or nutrition.
"We have in our labs new formulations of our products that we're experimenting with," Woodside says. "One of the advantages of the platform that we built is that it really is like a technology platform; there are lots of things that we can do to continuously improve our product, whereas standard beef, animal cow beef, is pretty much going to be the same in the future."
As for the unpredictable demand that lies ahead for the entire fake meat industry, behemoth Impossible Foods will be relying on executives used to adapting to disruption on-the-go.
"The mobile-phone industry is cutting-edge for demand-curve planning; it's become extremely efficient despite the inability to precisely predict what the consumer demand will be," Konrad, the company's communication officer, says. "Similarly, Impossible Foods is making an all-new product in the all-new category of plant-based meat, and so we need to recognize that growth could be explosive."
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