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Man fighting virus

Brand-building survival tips for today's reality

The first virtual Hirshberg Entrepreneurship Institute serves as a source of high-level inspiration and ruthless pragmatism.

This year's Hirshberg Entrepreneurship Institute, taking place May 7-8, 2020, will be the most unique in its 20-plus years of existence. Gary Hirshberg—Stonyfield Farm co-founder, organic advocate and the institute's creator—says so because this will be the first time the event will be held online, and because of the unique predicament the natural products industry finds itself in.

With the world having turned upside down from the COVID-19 pandemic, CPG brands are reeling. So, what is the education that is most important now for natural products brands? In a lead-up to the annual institute, Hirshberg pulled out a portion of his regular programming called "Tales from the Trenches" to bring voices from across the industry together to offer much-needed words of advice for brands that have found themselves in unknown territory.

Hirshberg's intention for the institute has always been to help entrepreneurs overcome challenges and grow. Now, he's using his platform to try to instill a sense of hope into the Tales from the Trenches series' listeners. "I've wanted to take advantage of the collective wisdom—the wins as well as the losses—to help entrepreneurs. Now, in this period, it's taken on new relevance," he says.

The twice-weekly webinar series combines the big picture—reminding us that it hasn't always been a smooth ride—with very practical, concrete advice on how to navigate this new reality from entrepreneurial leaders who've gone through other difficult times with their businesses.

Clear mega-themes emerge

Hirshberg says there are major themes emerging from the series that is now extending into May because of popular demand. Here's a quick breakdown of the themes he's recognized.

For high-level inspiration…

  • For anyone who thought there was a line between personal life and business life, that illusion has been shattered. When you're an entrepreneur it all blurs together. Get used to it.
  • A survival skill, let alone a success skill, is to have the ability to compartmentalize and segment. Focus on one thing at a time.
  • Take care of yourself, because the biggest thing you bring to your business and your employees is your spirit. It's the tone that you set, especially now that we're having to relate to our people remotely.
  • Forgive ourselves. The whole business is about knowing what you know and knowing what you don't know and working in isolation brings it into full focus. Letting yourself not be perfect is OK.

And the practical…

  • If there was ever a time to be ruthlessly focused on your cash positions this is it. A lot of things can go wrong, but you can't run of cash, so be maniacal about it.
  • Reduce SKUs. This is not the time to be trying to sell everything you make.
  • Organic, probiotic, immunity and proactive health are very smart places to be. If your product has those attributes and it's not screaming it, fix your packaging right now.
  • E-commerce is an essential survival strategy. Try to go directly to the consumer.
  • Overcommunicate with everybody: staff, distributors, retailers, suppliers. These are times to not be assuming anything.
  • There's a lot of capital looking for a home right now. (Hirshberg says this is witnessed by the 40 investors participating in the Institute.)
  • It's not an ideal time to launch new products, but it's not an impossible time. Brands are having to reinvent new ways to get to retailers and the consumer. Go deep with a lesser number of customers.

Hirshberg says all the panelists for the event have agreed that we don't know how long this is going to go, but that it's going to be a slow launch back. This means every founder must be anticipating and making concreate changes and shifts in how they go to market.

What to expect from the Hirshberg Entrepreneurship Institute

The institute will be a two-day virtual event via Zoom with eight case studies presenting on Day 1 to a panel of industry experts on "financing your business" and "positioning your brand story"—two tried-and-true topics, Hirshberg believes. Presenting brands, as well as others in attendance, will take away valuable advice on the do's and don't of managing a business during the pandemic.  

"I know particularly in this time we can be especially helpful. You don’t need to present a case to get a lot value out of this," says Hirshberg.

About 70 brands—a record number for the institute—applied for this year's case study slots, most adjusting to this time they find themselves in and looking for answers to very specific questions. Many will bring ideas to problems they're facing and want feedback on.

Fourteen brands have been chosen to pitch to a group of investors on Day 2 of the institute. Attendees will benefit by watching and learning from those pitching, as well as hearing the investors’ questions and responses.

"There are a lot of adaptations happening, which is the hallmark of the successful entrepreneur … If there was ever a test, this is it," Hirshberg says.

Attendees can register to attend the two-day virtual event for $50.

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