As Winston Churchill said, “never waste a good crisis.”
Indeed, many vendors view the outbreaks and recalls associated with fresh produce as business opportunities. And while the produce industry has a keen interest in improved approaches to food safety, vendors would be well advised to understand the industry so that they don’t come off as charlatans during their pitch.
As an association professional, many vendors reach out to me as a means of accessing our membership. These range from startup companies, to those who may be well established in other areas (e.g., clinical, environmental, etc.) who are looking to expand into the food space, or companies established in other parts of the food system (e.g., meat, dairy, etc.) who see an opportunity in fresh produce. There are many types of solutions that are offered — whether antimicrobials, equipment, test kits, software or other products.
Regardless, here are some recommendations when approaching the industry (or an association, as a proxy).
1. Be succinct but thorough. Vendors should be able to explain their solution within 15 minutes. Actually, they should be able to explain it within 5 minutes, leaving 10 minutes for conversation. That is enough time to determine if another conversation is warranted. Requesting an hour or more for an initial conversation is an immediate turn off, at least to me, and vendors should be respectful of staff time. At the same time, details and specificity are helpful. If the product is a scientific solution, then be prepared to have a technical discussion. Marketing materials can and should be sent in advance of a call, since it’s nice to have a rough idea of the topic.
2. Be clear on what you want out of the conversation. Are you looking for my general thoughts? Money? Endorsement? Members to pilot the solution? This is generally the first question I ask. Part of the mission of our association is to facilitate business connections, but that does not mean that I am going to be a member of your sales team.
3. Do your homework about the industry and your audience (e.g., me). As an association person, I really don’t need to see a software demo, because I will not be a user. But I am a scientist and will ask lots of questions. It’s frustrating when they can’t be answered because the details are confidential and proprietary. Be aware of the challenges associated with implementing some solutions in the produce sector — or ask me what challenges might be encountered. My perception is less favorable when vendors oversimplify the industry and make assumptions about the applicability of their product.
4. Do your homework about your competitors. Seldom do I see a solution that is completely novel. But often there are features that are attractive differentiators from current solutions, and it’s helpful to identify similar types of products or services in the marketplace and call out your advantages.
Check out United Fresh Produce Association’s vendor assessment tool here: bit.y/2S59VZM
Here’s what you can expect from me out of an initial conversation: If you’re not a member of the association, expect I will ask why you aren’t. For vendors who are looking to create awareness within an industry, there is no better way than by being an active member of that community, and involvement in a trade association is a great way to do that. Pre-pandemic, trade shows were a great way to expose the industry to your solution. Even in a virtual environment, we’ve found creative and meaningful ways to facilitate connections.
Know what questions I will ask. Be familiar with the vendor assessment tool that was created by our member volunteer Food Safety Council. It provides pertinent questions for several categories of products and services. These are the questions we recommend members ask as they are evaluating different vendors, and vendors have found it helpful to understand how to talk about their offerings.
If you’re looking for funding, I may refer you to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Small Business Innovation Research Program (bit.ly/32WtaqG) funding opportunities. If I find value in the concept, I may even offer to write a letter of support to the funding agency. As part of doing one’s homework, vendors should learn that our association does not directly fund research or innovation but instead supports the efforts of other groups.
Lastly, please do reach out! Given the large and diverse membership that I serve, it’s important that I stay up to speed on the newest innovations and services. I really do enjoy learning about the latest. You’ve got 15 minutes.