The VC Helping Brands Succeed Online

By Lee Schafer
Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

Start-up companies looking for capital are usually happy to take any money, but even better than capital is strategic capital.

It’s the money that comes from investors who also bring some expertise that helps grow the business.

Strategic capital usually comes from big companies, but strategic investor Andrew Mitchell is nothing like that, just the founder of a two-person venture capital firm called Brand Foundry Ventures.

He has every intention of providing strategic capital, however, and he’ll do it through a network of 29 branding and advertising agencies he’s calling the Brand Foundry Collective. It’s an interesting new approach to bringing expertise to start-ups.

It’s clear from what he’s called his firm that what he evaluates when looking to invest is the brand, not just a company and certainly not a product.

“My overall thesis is that brick-and-mortar is broken,” Mitchell said. “But brands are succeeding online.
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There’s a generational and behavioral shift, obviously as simple as everyone is now carrying a mobile phone and everyone is discovering things on social platforms and telling their friends about them. It’s just the next wave.”

Not having to rely on a big company like Target to reach potential customers makes it easier to get a consumer products start-up off the ground, Mitchell said, through simple e-commerce platforms like Shopify. It’s still not exactly easy to succeed, of course, but odds improve if the start-up establishes some sort of brand presence with the target customer without spending a lot of money.

Mitchell got some of his insights the hard way, as an entrepreneur himself. He once was the principal of an online distributor of perfume and other personal products, and he also built relationships with some big retailers. And since he had these relationships, the thought occurred to him that he would make a lot more money by offering fragrance products under his own brand name.

His branded products exceeded $25 million in sales his first year. Unfortunately he also lost $4 million.

Mitchell, a native of Edina now living in New York, later turned to investing. He founded Brand Foundry Ventures last year, with five investors from the Twin Cities in his first fund.

He has since been busy, making 15 investments out of his first fund and building out the network of branding firms. Here in the Twin Cities the network includes the DOJO Group of Hopkins and Minneapolis-based Marvel Citizen.

Start-ups get a chance to meet with people very experienced in how to build a brand. They are not obligated to sign a contract, although several of the 15 start-ups in Mitchell’s portfolio have gone on to establish working relationships with branding firms in the network.

Mitchell’s pitch to the network’s brand consultants is that they will be introduced to young companies that look to have a very promising start at developing a brand but that could use some help filling in the holes. The consultants also just may learn something from the entrepreneur, maybe by getting introduced to a piece of technology that could be helpful to their existing clients.

What Mitchell gets out of this is clear enough. It’s the chance to stand out when entrepreneurs start looking for their first significant outside investor. He would also certainly like to hear first about any promising business one of his branding consultants thought looked pretty exciting.

This idea of the network of smart branding consultants working with start-ups certainly appealed to the consultant Kim Garretson, one of the two Minnesotans on a small team of advisers to Mitchell and the fund.

Garretson has deep experience in marketing, retailing and technology, and his career includes leadership roles at three agencies. But where he really saw a need for common sense branding work was when he worked several years ago in corporate strategy at Best Buy Co., serving as a liaison to the venture capital industry.

Best Buy was interested in innovative new products and companies, and during four years there Garretson talked with the founders of more than 600 start-ups. The best of the bunch would get invited to Best Buy headquarters in Richfield to meet with Best Buy merchants and marketers. While he tried to coach the entrepreneurs on how to talk to the merchants before they got there, Garretson said, their presentations were generally terrible.

“My frustration was they did not know how to message to the large consumer market that Best Buy was going after,” he said.

“They were geeks. They wanted to click through all the amazing features that their products could do. When Andrew told me what he was going to do, I said, ‘I’m in.'”

Mitchell’s first fund was $20 million, and even though Mitchell invests relatively small amounts in what’s usually the first funding round for most businesses, the 15 deals he’s completed so far mean he’ll soon be looking to raise another fund.

He said he’s also looking into creating a Brand Foundry e-commerce outlet that would be open to any of the portfolio companies as a place to sell their products, in addition to seeking customers on their own.

“That’s TBD,” he said. “I really like to offer something more than just money.”

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