December 9, 2015

Why Startup Success Isn’t Always Created Behind a Computer

Originally Published on by Cathryn Woodruff ’15

Although the popular image of a startup includes long hours furiously coding behind a laptop, my experience has been quite the opposite. Instead, I find myself spending multiple hours a day reading facial expressions and assessing body language cues.
I’m not a psychologist or a CIA agent. In fact, I work for a food startup.
But I’ve become a master at one particular facial expression: the face of surprised delight. It makes my day every time I see it. I’m on the founding team at Banza. We created the first pasta made from chickpeas. The only real way to get people to fall in love with the product is to bring it straight to their taste buds. Recently, we’ve been doing a series of “demo sprints” in different stores across the country. This involves our seven-person team quite literally running around the city to bring our pasta to the people. Every day, we’re on the battlefield and fighting for shelf space in the pasta aisle. I get this bizarre satisfaction from someone trying just one noodle. I hope to get it on people’s radars, into their mouths and hopefully into their carts as well.
This experience has taught me about those intangible, “off-résumé” skills it takes to build a business. They aren’t skills you can endorse on LinkedIn, but I’ve learned they are vital for survival in the startup world.

Enthusiastically pitch the company repeatedly.

Your product, idea or service may be incredibly innovative. But if you can’t communicate that to the consumer in a way that reflects how much you care and believe in it yourself, you won’t sell it. Every conversation with someone is a chance to make him or her fall in love. Attention spans are short, so there are only a few seconds to reel someone in. I’ll talk to 1,000 people in a store on any given day, and the last pitch must be just as enthusiastic as the first. It’ll be very apparent to people whether or not you genuinely love the product yourself. It makes a huge difference.

Maintain and embody a consistent brand voice

The essence of a brand is very intangible. It’s the amalgamation of every word you write in a customer service email. It’s the tone you use to caption Instagrams, and it’s how you present yourself to your audience. Embodying this and truly owning it are vital skills, skills I’m definitely still figuring out. This is something every brand is constantly negotiating and reevaluating.

Have a “no task is too small” attitude

People are shocked when I say I’m actually on the founding team at the company. Our cofounders are demoing every day, too. Despite the power of technology, the life blood of our company is interacting with our consumer. Every aspect of the business hinges on this ultimate question: Do they like it?
Grocery stores are saturated these days with brands all claiming health benefits. The best way to rise above the noise is by communicating your story. Set up a table and cook up the food. Bring life to the cardboard nutrition label. Building a food brand is way more than the appetizing pictures you post on social media. As flawless as our Excel financial models may be, and as engaged as our Instagram followers are, nothing matters if the product doesn’t sell.
The product won’t sell if you can’t bring it to the people.
No matter how far along we get technologically, people will always enjoy food and the social and emotional experience of eating together among friends. So, as long as we’re all still human, you can find me in a marinara-stained Banza t-shirt, smiling at the woman across the table who just made that “this is surprisingly delicious” face I’ve come to know and love so well. Before joining Banza, I naively assumed the biggest contribution I could make was by quickly learning as many hard skills as possible and plugging away behind a computer. But instead, it’s been learning how to sell a physical product in front of people.
There are no algorithms or coding.
It’s all just human to human interaction.

  • Name: Cathryn Woodruff ’15
  • Alma mater: Boston College ’15
  • Job: Business Development and Marketing
  • Company Banza, a Fellow-founded chickpea pasta company
Posted in: Fellows